The owls are late. Oscar Vaz leans against his car, parked at the edge of a field in northeastern Travis County, and scans the landscape through binoculars. Somewhere, in the brush that’s turning from brown to pink in the evening light, at least half a dozen short-eared owls are roosting. This is Vaz’s second visit today: he was here early this morning to catch a glimpse of the birds at daybreak. “As I started seeing sunlight, they were flying around, but the minute the sun was peeking up over the horizon, they hunkered down,” Vaz says. On their way to the roost, some flew close enough that he could hear the whoosh of air flowing over their wings.

On this Thursday in December, a half-dozen cars are parked on the side of Brita Olson Road, a few miles north of Manor. But on recent weekends, ever since someone first spotted the birds in mid-November, as many as fifty birders and wildlife photographers have been converging on the spot to watch short-eared owls begin their nightly hunt. Although the owls are widespread globally—they’re found on every continent except for Australia and Antarctica—they’re an uncommon and coveted sight for Texas birders, in part because their population is declining along with the Texas prairie. True winter Texans, they arrive here from northern regions only when temperatures drop and prey becomes less abundant. Their chosen headquarters outside Austin evidently offers plenty of food: mice, voles, and even meadowlarks. Central Texas is home year-round to barred owls, eastern screech owls, and great horned owls, which generally prefer wooded areas and solitude. In contrast, short-eared owls like open prairies and, in the right conditions, they roost communally on the ground. 

The birds are named for the feathery tufts atop their heads that, according to guidebooks, create the illusion of little ears—although none of the birders I spoke with had witnessed that effect. (Several suggested the name simply contrasts them with long-eared owls, a similar bird in the same genus with much more pronounced tufts.) Ears or no, the owls are captivating. Their facial disk—the concave apple-core shape of an owl’s face, which channels sound waves into its ears—is broad and pale, accentuating the piercing gaze of their vivid, dark-lined amber eyes. “I half-jokingly say they have the best ‘smokey eye’ of any of our owls,” Texas Parks and Wildlife statewide ornithologist Tania Homayoun writes in an email. The Travis County Birds Facebook page, where word spread quickly, is filled with owl photos posted by devotees. The birds stare intently at the viewer or turn in mid-flight, their bullet-shaped bodies framed by enormous mottled-brown wings.

Many raptors, including red-tailed hawks and kestrels, are drawn to this agricultural land in the blackland prairie, where mice hide in the tall grass and clean up harvested cornfields. The location also attracts northern harriers, hawks that often are spotted alongside short-eared owls and that compete with them for prey. Eliana Patt is here partly to watch the tiffs between the owls and the harriers. “When owls make vocalizations that aren’t hoots or other specific calls, they’ll do this hissing screech, and it sounds almost demonic,” she says.

She and other birders are speculating that perhaps the owls won’t come out tonight when eight of them abruptly rise from the brush together, as though responding to a secret cue. After a rush of awe-tinged profanity, the humans go silent, their conversation replaced by the click of camera shutters. The owls, maybe fifty yards away, circle in ever-higher orbits before sweeping low across the field in search of prey. When their backs are toward us, they appear black against the blue clouds that hug the horizon. When they turn and expose their bellies, their bodies gleam a brilliant white. Patt passes me her binoculars, and I watch one skim the grass, turn with fluttering wings, and dive to catch a vole. 

“They’re just stunning birds,” she says. “I hope they stick around for January. It would be nice to try to get”—observe and log—“as many Texas owls as possible in one year.”

Nearby, Aditya Datta is using his mirrorless camera to document the show. He has come here nearly a dozen times, noting the owls’ behavior in different wind and weather conditions and trying to capture the perfect shot. “Wildlife photography is a significant amount of problem solving and trying to get lucky,” he says. “You have to understand where to be, when, and the pattern and behavior of the animals. The more predictable it is, the better your chances of really capturing a moment that would evoke an emotion toward the conservation of the animal.” 

Although short-eared owls are relatively abundant around the world, their numbers in North America have declined steeply in recent decades. The conservation organization Partners in Flight estimates that the species’ population on the continent has decreased by 65 percent or more since 1970. This is due in large part to the fact that most American prairies have been paved over or converted to agricultural use. Just 1 percent of Texas’s native grasslands still grow wild today, according to the Nature Conservancy. “Protecting, managing, and restoring native grassland habitat is one of the best ways we can help short-eared owls here on their wintering grounds,” Homayoun writes. Residential development has been consuming the farmland east of Pflugerville and north of Manor, and heavy traffic strains the two-lane roads near Brita Olson. Future winters may be less hospitable to visiting short-eared owls.

I haven’t experienced a birder’s instinct to collect—to create a list of the birds I’ve seen, to photograph them and post the images—so I simply watch until daylight disappears and a thin crescent moon emerges. I walk back to my car as the breeze ruffles the tall stands of dry Johnsongrass lining the road. A mile away, on a slight rise, a light illuminates the white facade of the New Sweden Lutheran Church, and the owls’ silhouettes occasionally flicker across its glowing face. Suddenly, to my left, I feel a beating of wings and sense something large in the air: a momentary presence that skims by my shoulder and sails past me into the dark.