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.
January 2, 2018 – Perched on the soft exposed dried grasses and using a snow bank piled up by a snowplow to reflect the morning sun three Short-eared Owls were soaking in a little bit of warmth on a bitterly cold morning in rural Iroquois county this past week. If a person is lucky enough to experience an encounter with a Short-eared Owl it would most likely be in that brief time at dawn or dusk while the owl might be perched on a fence post or gliding low over the grasslands searching for small prey animals. The negative temperatures with dangerous wind chills may have brought them to the edge of a less traveled country road in the late morning for some relief in the warmth of the winter sun. If not for the snow a person could quite easily pass right by these midsize owls and never see them. One can most certainly see from the photos how well the colors of the Short-eared Owls blend in with the dried vegetation they are sitting on.
During the winter months here in North Eastern Illinois is the best opportunity to observe the Short-eared Owl. Areas set aside for the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and restored prairies are good places to stake out in the late afternoon with binoculars and patience, scan the area for a perched or low flying bird that may be hunting over the grassland. The Northern Harrier and Short-eared Owl are very similar looking so it is a good idea to do a little homework before your adventure. The Nature Conservancy Kankakee Sands project in Newton county Indiana is a short drive east of Kankakee and is also a great place to see the Short-eared Owls hunting in the late afternoon over the dormant winter prairies.
The summer range during the nesting season, from mid-March to May, of the Short-eared Owl overlaps their winter range in the northern half of the United States from the Great Lakes west to the Pacific ocean. The owls also nest in most of Canada and Alaska. Listed as an endangered species in Illinois the Short-eared Owls do nest in our state, most likely the northern half and in very low numbers with the exception of Prairie Ridge State Natural Area. Located in southeastern Illinois in Jasper county, Prairie Ridge State Natural Area boasts the largest population of nesting Short-eared Owls in Illinois while providing nearly 2000 acres of grassland habitat. In Canada and the United States the loss of habitat from agriculture and urban expansion, mining and the use of pesticides and dangerous rodent control methods can have a negative impact on the Short-eared Owl and other grassland raptors.