I just had to look at the map and measured the distance: the closest nest to my home was a mere 3,5 kilometres away! What a situation … Ok, I had seen short-eared owls in my home region during winter, but breeding, who would have expected that?
When I came back from my last trip, I wanted to take it easy for a while. So I started to edit some pictures of the last months. I’d had my share of taking pictures from hides, getting up way too early, having very short nights and hardly any time to make back-ups. It was time to store away the 600mm lens and start the fight with the nearly exploding external drives hanging around my computer.
But it wasn’t to be. As soon as I got home, I got the news that the owls that had started breeding in June were still hanging around, and some were still feeding their chicks. And this was just a few kilometres away from where I live … I couldn’t believe it. Short-eared owls are very, very rare breeding birds in Belgium, and breeding numbers like this (almost 20 nests that have been discovered, but probably more remained unnoticed) are super-exceptional. The extremely high vole population certainly helped. You could see holes and tracks and hear their squeaks everywhere.
So I knew what I had to do: fill up some more external drives. For the next 3 weeks, I spent most of the evenings and mornings in several hides that I had put up in fields, with the kind permission of the local farmers. After a few days, even the cows didn’t notice me anymore, and the owls treated me with a great show.
I had been searching for short-eared owls in Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Poland, but with no great success. I soon realized that this is a hard species to get to, and definitely to experience some quality time with. But I was able to follow two families for more than two weeks! I got to see the progress of the chicks. I still have some pictures in my head that I didn’t get to shoot because I missed the start of the breeding period. But I can’t complain. How many people can say that they had breeding short-eared owls in their ‘backyard’?
It was a stressful time, though. The owls decided to build their nests in production grasslands and cereal fields. These were to be cut during the last weeks. Several sessions in my hide ended abruptly when I saw the farmers approaching in their tractors. Luckily they were surprised to hear about the owls in their fields and helped us to protect the chicks. Thanks to these farmers, most of the chicks survived. I do hope they choose a safer spot next year!
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