Rare Owl at Malheur Refuge

Written by FOMR Secretary Rick Vetter/Photo by Rick Vetter

Conducting raptor surveys on Malheur Refuge usually turns up something special, like a barn owl hunting during the day, diving into deep snow; or 36 coyotes in one hour hunting mice at 20 degrees below zero. But never anything this special.

During the November 22, 2019 survey, Joan Suther and I saw a suspected short-eared owl at dusk perched on a fence post just off of Center patrol Road south of Benson pond, which is a good bird for a Harney County “winter” raptor count. 

But as we approached the bird, something appeared odd. When the owl turned his head to look at us, it had big black shiny eyes, which meant that this was a rare barred owl or a humongous flammulated owl in disguise!

This is only the third observation of a barred owl on Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The other two observations were made at Refuge Headquarters, with one on March 26, 1996 by myself, Joan Suther, Larry Hammond and others; and another on October 6, 2000 when Noah Strycker, Alan Contreras and others watched a barred owl fight over a snake with a great horned owl. Headquarters makes a bit more sense for this species, as there are trees. It was odd that this one was hunting a clear cut hay meadow and competing with a coyote for food. Both were hunting by ear, listening for the sounds of meadow voles in the dry grass.

Several other sightings have occurred in Harney County or nearby. The first one was observed in the mid 1980s at Delintment Lake on Malheur National Forest by Charlie Bruce while elk hunting. Mark Armstrong found one dead below his picture window in the mid 1990s in Hines after he heard a loud thump that shook the front of his house. A pair was also heard calling in the summer of 2013 on Malheur National Forest. 

There are no records in CD Littlefield’s book, “Birds Of Malheur Refuge”, because the book was published in 1990 before most of the known observations occurred. 

Barred owls have been expanding their range in the NW and into California and prefer the moist forests on west side of the state where they compete with spotted owls and smaller owls.