Short-eared Owl

A Short-eared owl perched on a survey marker at the Kankakee Sands in Newton County Indiana.

December 23, 2019 – It’s the most wonderful time of the year, that time when winters’ late afternoon skies become active with Short-eared owls swooping, gliding, or perched on a fence post or in a small leafless tree just above the tall grasses of their winter roost. Early mornings and overcast days are also good times to see the owls. Where suitable habitat exists on the restored prairies or along the rural roads of Northeastern Illinois and Northwestern Indiana during those cold winter months, it is during the late afternoon, as the sun retreats towards the southwest, when those delightful medium-sized owls take to the sky in amazing displays of flight. When not chasing each other, in their minor territorial disputes, they search the fields and prairies for prey, occasionally landing on the ground highly alert and watching the other owls flying above. When “The Prairie State” was truly a prairie, before settlements and agriculture claimed the land, the nesting of Short-eared owls was believed to be widespread and numerous on the unbroken grasslands of Illinois and Indiana. Now there are only a few places suitable for nesting in Illinois. Prairie Ridge State Natural Area in Jasper County is one of those areas and it provides 2000 acres of grassland habitat for these ground nesting owls to roost, hunt, and fledge their young. It should also be mentioned that the 2000 acres at Prairie Ridge has nesting Northern harriers and the states only population of Greater prairie chickens. Closer to home, just east of Kankakee, the 8,400 acres of restored prairie and wetlands owned and managed by the Indiana Chapter of the Nature Conservancy at the Kankakee Sands in Newton County Indiana is a great place to observe wintering Short-eared owls, Harriers, and Rough-legged hawks.

Short-eared owl gliding over the prairie looking for prey this past week.

The Northern Harrier

A hunting Northern Harrier spreads its’ tail-feathers slowing down quickly to catch the prey below.

December 19, 2019 – Gliding low and slow across the agricultural fields and the grassy waterways and prairies here in Northeastern Illinois are the beautiful Northern harriers. Once known as the Marsh hawk, these steep banking, quick stopping, hunting birds are considered here in the United States as “resident to long-distance migrants” According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. We see an increase in numbers during the fall migration and into the winter months throughout Illinois. The harriers nest in numbers from Northern Wisconsin north into Canada and Alaska. These ground nesting hawks require large amounts of grasslands or wetland habitats for successful nesting. Some of the harriers winter from just south of the southern edge of their summer range, while others migrate all the way south to Central and South America. The stealthy, medium-sized hawks can be seen flying and hunting across Illinois’s cold sleeping landscape, looking and listening for movement coming from the dried dormant grasses just beneath their silent glide. When the focused hunters detect prey they use their long wings and long tail feathers to quickly turn and stop their graceful forward movement and instantly drop down on a field mouse or vole. The harriers are often seen diving at and chasing away Rough-legged hawks, Red-tailed hawks and even other harriers that get too close to their perceived hunting areas. The Northern Harriers are easily identified as they fly low across fields and prairies, their wings most often in a v-shape, and there is a white rump patch at the top of their long tail feathers. The female harriers and the immature birds are dark reddish-brown and tan, and the male adult birds, slightly smaller than the female, are a light-gray and almost white on some parts of the body, the tips of their wings are black. Often perched on a fence post or sitting in a field with a captured prey, one can get a good look at the feather pattern on the harrier’s face, it has a round appearance and resembles that of an owl. The disk like pattern of feathers on the harriers face is believed to help the hawks hear their prey as they hunt.

An adult female Northern Harrier keeps a wary eye as it glides by the photographer.

Hawks and Owls

Northern Harrier
A female Northern Harrier perched on a fence post resting but also listening and watching for prey in the grasses along the roadway.

January 21, 2019 – There is snow on the prairie and some of the young bulls in the bison herd at the Kankakee Sands, in Newton county Indiana, challenge each others strength in their play fighting. Butting heads, jumping, and pushing each other until one walks away, but the bested young bull returns for more, unable to resist the challenge. Above in the winter skies, the Rough-legged hawks, in their varied shades of black, brown and white, hover over the cold white blanket pressing down on the sleeping grasses of bleak winter fields. Northern Harriers glide low, back and forth over the prairie at times looking like a kite that has come loose from its’ tether as they drop down on an unwitting prey. Late afternoon the Short-eared owls awaken from their roosts, flying in circles rising up high above the prairie in a group of four or five that soon descend in different directions finding their area to hunt. Perched on a sign or fence post or small tree they are wide eyed and alert, watching with those keen yellow eyes, for any movement surrounding their vantage.

A Short-eared owl is perched and hunting from a low tree surrounded by snow and fog as the last bit of light dims for the day.

The Christmas Bison

Baby Bison

Photo taken on December 12, 2018 of a Bison calf at TNC Kankakee Sands.

December 12, 2018 – The late season birth of a bison calf just recently discovered at The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands in Newton county Indiana stays close to its’ mother on a cold but sunny December day. A small group of mature bulls could be seen grazing and resting in a northwest part of the north pasture, but the bulk of the herd was on one of the sand hills, near the remains of Bogus Island, where they had a nice southern exposure to the morning sun. The other young bison that were born in the spring, now looking somewhat like small adults, seemed to be enjoying the sunshine as they butted heads and rolled in a dusty wallow, at times completely covering their furry faces in a dusty mask. The new calf in its’ cinnamon-colored coat stood out as it walked across the hill not venturing far from its’ mother. Ted Anchor, the Project Manager at the Kankakee Sands, says that this late birth is uncommon but not unheard of. Anchor also reported that 16 calves were born during the spring and the bison herd at The Kankakee Sands is now at 50+. More information on The Kankakee Sands can be found at https://www.nature.org/en-us/get-involved/how-to-help/places-we-protect/kankakee-sands/

Rough-legged hawk

Rough-legged hawk

Rough-legged hawk perched on a steel cable

December 9, 2018 – Perched on a steel cable above a grassy area a Rough-legged hawk, a large raptor of the high arctic during the summer, keeps an eye out below for prey. The photo shows the feathers covering the legs, extending down to their small feet. The tip of the beak is stained red from a recent kill. The Rough-legged hawks have migrated south out the Arctic and are now on their wintering grounds. The wintering ground of the Rough-legged hawk includes most of the United States, minus the states south of the Ohio river and East of the Mississippi. According to The Cornell lab of Ornithology these wintering hawks feed mostly on voles, mice and shews while in our area of Illinois. I have personally witnessed them on the carrion of a rather large mammal a few winters back. With a wingspan of over 4′ they can’t be missed as they hover and glide over the farm fields and prairies. Watch for them perched on utility poles or on the small branches of trees or even sitting on the ground throughout the winter months.

Rough-legged hawks Return

Rough-legged hawk

Rough-legged hawk

November 10, 2017 – A steady and chilly wind reminds us that another winter is approaching the prairies of Illinois and now, just ahead of that stark and frozen season, the Rough-legged hawks have returned. High over the fallow fields, pastures, and the dormant prairies, appearing suspended like tethered kites hovering and maneuvering in the gusts are the arctic birds of prey that have migrated to their less forbidden winter range. There are no ptarmigans or lemmings here, a food source on the tundra during the hawks nesting season but there are plenty of other small mammals and birds that will sustain these wonderful hunters for the next five or six months before they return to their nesting areas on the cliff faces and outcroppings overlooking the vast and open country of the arctic.

Rough-legged hawk

Rough-legged hawk hunting over the prairie in Northern Indiana

Grasshopper Sparrow

Grasshopper Sparrow

Grasshopper Sparrow

July 23, 2017 – While perched on a fence post at the The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands in Newton county Indiana a Grasshopper Sparrow sings out a song that resembles the sounds of its’ favorite food, the grasshopper. The little songbird has a perfect habitat at the Kankakee Sands with the open grasslands, plenty of insects and a good place for these ground nesting little migrants to have a successful breeding season. The Grasshopper Sparrow has shown a decline in recent years from habitat loss throughout its’ range with the fragmentation and degradation from intensive agriculture. The 2014 state of the birds report has the Grasshopper Sparrow listed as a common bird in steep decline.

Grasshopper Sparrow

Grasshopper Sparrow

The Rough-legged hawk

 The Rough-legged hawk

Dark Morph Rough-legged hawk

March 25, 2017 – The Rough-legged hawk can be spotted perched on utility poles, fence posts or gliding low across the frozen agricultural fields and the waterways of dormant grasses and weeds during the winter months here in the mid-west. Oftentimes these birds can be seen sitting on the ground along the roadway or in the desolate looking winter farm fields as they keep a wary eye and scan their surrounding for potential prey. In the summer one would have to travel to Hudson Bay and the High Arctic to see them hunting lemmings or voles on the tundra or nesting on a rock ledge or a ground level rocky outcropping with their brood of 2-6 eggs. Weighing up to 3lbs and having a wing-span of 4 ½ ft they are easy to spot as they seem to be a fixture in the winter sky gliding with eyes down into the wind hovering at times as they watch for movement of a mouse, ground squirrel or even a rabbit. Identifying the Rough-legged hawk is really not that difficult, although they could be mistaken for the Northern Harrier that has a similar hunting method. I always look for that tell-tale pattern, easier to see on the light-morph birds, those somewhat square or rectangle looking dark bold patches on the underside of the wings between the wing-tips and the first joint. Another thing to look for on these hawks are the feathers on the legs, the Rough-legged hawk gets its name from the feathers that cover the legs extending all the way to the toes, which are believed to help conserve heat. In our rural areas from November to March one has the best chance to have an encounter with these Arctic visitors.

Rough-legged hawk

Rough-legged hawk

Bison On The Prairie

Kankakee Sands Bison

Kankakee Sands Bison

December 31, 2016 – There was cold stiff December wind blowing across the prairie at Kankakee Sands Saturday morning, a good way to make a fine memory on the last day of the year. The Bison herd were keeping a tall sand ridge between them and the relentless winds as they grouped together near some small oak trees. I noticed that 10 white-tailed deer had found some protection from the wind in the tall grasses west of the Bison. Rough legged hawks and Northern Harriers seemed suspended in the sky above the prairie using the wind to their advantage as they hunted for small mammals. For a moment one could imagine a time before the Europeans when the indigenous people and nature existed as one. The primitive roads through the dense prairie grasses of their original range were made by these grand beast migrating north and south and stretching from Michigan to Kentucky across a vast prairie, passing oak savannas, marshes, campsites and villages of the natives. I can sense a rumble like thunder under clear skies, dust clouds of movement as a herd passes long ago near where I sit.

Kankakee Sands Bison

Kankakee Sands Bison