Short-eared Owls Defending Their Nest Against Predators

  • Occasionally I recycle one of my earliest posts because I had very few viewers back then and few of my current blog followers have ever seen them. This one was published on July 7, 2011. For this “edition” I’ve revised much of the text and changed the formatting.

Recent reports from others indicate that bird activity on Antelope Island is slowing down now and my experience out there recently would agree with that assessment so yesterday when I was trying to decide where to go shooting birds I was a little hesitant about another trip to the island. But even with things slowing down I almost never fail to find something interesting to photograph there and yesterday was no exception.



Canon 7D, 1/800, f/7.1, ISO 500, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc

Soon after arriving on the island I noticed two Short-eared Owls and based on their behavior they were obviously a mated pair.




Canon 7D, 1/1000, f/7.1, ISO 500, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc

This one was carrying a vole and I immediately suspected that the pair had a nest in the vicinity, which turned out to be true. The nest was quite a distance from the road and buried in vegetation but I could tell roughly where it was by watching this owl repeatedly deliver food to the nest site – either to the mate or to both the mate and chicks.

I watched and photographed the birds for a while but when things slowed down I drove to another area of the island.



Canon 7D, 1/1600, f/8, ISO 640, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc

When I returned to the area of the nest I immediately saw a quickly-developing drama. A young coyote was approaching the nest area and the owls were in a frenzy trying to drive the coyote off by diving on it and making quite a ruckus. The unusually wet spring resulted in taller than usual vegetation on the island and the coyote quickly disappeared in all the deep grass and sagebrush but I could tell where it was simply by watching where the owls were diving on it. It continued to approach the nest and the owls became frantic in its defense.

Here the male is beginning one of his many dives on the coyote.




Canon 7D, 1/1000, f/7.1, ISO 640, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc

Both birds dive-bombed the coyote repeatedly for the roughly 15 minutes it was in the area but I almost never actually saw the coyote after it left the area of the road and continued up the hill toward the nest. In this photo the coyote must have been within only a few feet of the nest. The action was so fast and furious that I made a conscious effort to fire off shots as one of the owls was at the bottom of a dive in hopes I’d get lucky and catch both the owl sharp (difficult to do with the background so close to the bird) and the coyote visible.

I got three shots where I could see both an owl and the coyote – this was the best of the three.




Canon 7D, 1/2000, f/7.1, ISO 640, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc

After spending quite a while in the area of the nest the coyote eventually wandered toward the crest of the hill where the vegetation wasn’t as tall so I could actually see it. By this time the coyote had left the general vicinity of the nest so this owl was content to perch on the rock and watch as the predator slowly wandered over the crest of the hill and left the immediate vicinity of the nest.




Canon 7D, 1/2000, f/7.1, ISO 640, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc

But the other owl couldn’t resist getting in one last lick.

I don’t know if the presumed chicks in the nest survived the encounter. The coyote was certainly buried in the deep vegetation around the nest long enough to have eaten them but I suspect the coyote never found them because the parents seemed to relax as soon as the predator was gone.

But their respite didn’t last long…




Canon 7D, 1/3200, f/7.1, ISO 640, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc

Soon after the coyote disappeared over the hill two Common Ravens came on the scene. Bad timing for the ravens because these owls were already pissed off from their encounter with the coyote and they weren’t about to cut the ravens any slack. Here an owl with an attitude is approaching a raven from the classic fighter jet position of attack – below and behind the target.




Canon 7D, 1/3200, f/7.1, ISO 640, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc

At the last second the raven turned to defend itself. I like how the right eye of the owl is playing peekaboo with the viewer between the claws of the raven.




 Canon 7D, 1/3200, f/7.1, ISO 640, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc

Naturally, in the only shot I got of the actual or very near contact, I cut off the right wing of the raven.

Both ravens beat a hasty retreat after this encounter.




Canon 7D, 1/2000, f/8, ISO 640, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc

They say turnabout is fair play and this one made me laugh. Right in the middle of the dogfight with the ravens this Barn Swallow took exception to the presence of the owl and presented a little territorial defense of its own. I wish I’d had enough depth of field to get the swallow sharp but it was an unexpected event and I was already at f/8, ISO 640 so there probably wasn’t much I could have done about it.

I was still glad to get the shot.



28 comments to Short-eared Owls Defending Their Nest Against Predators

  • April Olson

    Great series, thank you for reposting. It will be interesting to see how Antelope Island recovers from the fires of last summer. We have had a lot of moisture, perhaps the foliage will be very lush.

  • Sherrie M.

    Wow! These are intense shots. I admire your work and enjoy all your posts! Thank you, Ron.

  • Laura Culley

    Not to be ridiculously redundant but WOW! What a spectacular series!

  • Charlotte Norton

    mazing behavioral series Ron!


  • Thanks so much for all the kind comments everyone. I’ve been out shooting all morning and now have to get ready for a dentist appointment so I’m afraid I don’t have time to respond individually to comments…

  • Tjie Poo

    Spectacular series Ron !!!

  • Den DiMarco

    Well, Ron, I certainly agree with all the superlatives of your commenters! Without question this is one of the best educational series I have ever seen on owls, and certainly the best done in still shots.

    Thank your for your remarkable efforts in shooting and presenting this enjoyable tale!

  • Patty Chadwick

    A fascinating reminder of how tough things can be for birds just trying to survive…between finding and providing food for themselves and their young to fighting off a host of equally determined predators, they must burn a lot of energy!!! Most birds have a high metabolic rate to begin with…”free and and easy as a bird”—Yeah! ! Right! I love the back lighting, esp. on the first and second frames, the serrated tai feathers of the raven and the drama inherent in the whole series…really tells a story of what it takes to be e a bird!

  • Marty K

    Make that another WOW! for me! Phenomenal captures and descriptions of Nature’s drama. Thank you for giving this one a re-post. I would hate to piss off a SEO. Or a barn swallow, for that matter.

  • El Judith

    What an amazing cascade of events you captured! Thank you so much for sharing your beautiful images and narration. I truly enjoy it.

  • Pat

    WOW is right! Your narrative and photos had me so involved in the story that I felt I was there. Thank you so much for re-posting these photos and I too hope this owl family was OK.

  • Sallie Reynolds

    Er, make that “fellow creatures.”

  • Sallie Reynolds

    Fabulous window into the lives of these creatures!

  • Susan Stone

    What an interesting encounter! I especially like the facial expression on the Owl going after the Raven. That is determination if I’ve ever seen it. This series sheds a whole new light on what it means to be a bird parent: not only keeping everyone fed, but also a lot of energy going into defense.

  • Karen Absher

    Absolutely stunning pictures! Some of my very favorite of yours!

  • Dick Harlow

    Fantastic, WOW, wonderful shots Ron! Thanks for bringing some of your older shots back to those of us who weren’t here in those earlier years, it is greatly appreciated.
    I like all the shots, but particularly the second to last one when the Owl had the upper side with talons looking down on the Raven. However, I am biased for predators protecting what is theirs!

  • These photos, and the story, are amazing Ron! What an experience you captured. Hopefully the SEOWs were able to successfully fledge some young that year. I know that they are not doing well as a whole, with diminishing wetlands, and natural predation, hopefully there will areas where they successfully nest.

  • Bobbi Hamilton

    Amazing photos—-every morning it seems it can not get any better but it does! The light in the first and second photos is awesome.

  • Sharon Constant

    Wow! Fantastic images, Ron! I’ll bet you were happy about your decision to go out. Thanks for the morning drama. It’s such a great break from all the political drama.

  • Judy

    What a great display, both the Owl’s and yours! You are a wordsmith when it comes to realistic description of what you witness. Great shots and it doesn’t matter about the swallow not being sharp. He its BIG in that frame and at that time, he really was a BIG presence. THank you, Ron.

  • Zaphir Shamma

    Holy Moly!! Great sequence of photos and of bird/animal behavior. Tops Ron…tops!!

  • Hila

    WOW to the whole sequence!

  • Judy Gusick

    WOW! Wonderful job of catching the action unfolding in front of you! 🙂 Amazing how a small bird will take on a coyote and then a smaller bird take on the owl.:) The raven getting it is dramatic. Last summer we has some orioles dive bombing a perched eagle quite effectively. 🙂