March 10, 2022 – The winter migrants were almost invisible sitting along a rural road in Iroquois County during the mid-morning. Blending in quite well with the soft dried grasses, surrounded by mounds of snow on an extremely-cold February morning, five wintering Short-eared owls seemed little bothered by the passerby. The owls appeared motionless while taking advantage of a bit of warmth from the morning sun. I tried to envision a time in the midwest when marsh and prairie habitats were vast and uncorrupted. Midwestern America was a perfect nesting habitat for the ground-nesting birds, a time before European settlements when Short-eared owls were a common species found in our area of Illinois and the surrounding states. The Short-eared owl is now considered an endangered native. Today there are only a handful of records of Short-eared owls nesting in Illinois, which is occurring on some large blocks of restored and protected grassland habitat. The destruction and reduction of the grassland and wetland over the years that are important for a healthy population of Short-eared owls are the main reason they are listed as endangered in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. Other Great Lake states have the owls listed as threatened or as a species “of special concern.” Observing the sleepy little owls, they would at times open their large round yellow eyes, the short tufts of feathers would stick up like little horns on top of their head, resembling some underworld deity. The hornlike tufts of feathers that stand upon the heads of many owls like the Great-horned owl, and the Long-eared owl, are neither horns nor ears. Some believe that the erect feathers that can be raised or lowered at will on the Short-eared owls might be a means of non-vocal communicating with other Short-eared owls. Others have suggested that the feathers are just additional camouflage, for when the owl roost or nest on the ground among the grasses, helping them to blend into their surroundings. The Short-eared owl is medium-sized with a wingspan of up to 40 inches. They have rounded heads that is more obvious when the feathers on top of their head are not standing up. As spring nears, the wintering Short-eared owls will move north towards their nesting areas for the breeding season. Except for the rare summer sighting, most of us will have to wait until late fall and throughout the winter to experience the thrill of the Short-eared owls rising out of their roost at dusk for the hunt.
December 31, 2020 – The colors of the summer prairie are all but forgotten as the chill of December takes hold across a landscape of golds, browns, and faded tans. Snow squalls move across the land with the bitter winds, reducing visibility and dimming down the sunlight reminding us that it is the end of December and winter holds the cards. The subdued sunlight does appear at times, filtered but shining through the gray and white ever- changing troubled and cheerless clouds that seems to roll like a swollen river, fast and turbulent across the bleak wintry sky. Wildlife behavior has changed with the cold weather as great flocks of Sandhill cranes in Northern Indiana huddle together like blizzard bound Emperor penguins of Antarctica as the temperatures drop by 40 degrees. Birds of prey feel the sting of winter but must continue their hunt no matter what the weather conditions are. Red-tailed hawks, Kestrel, and Merlin falcons watch the ground below a convenient perch on a blustery day ready to quickly pounce on an unsuspecting prey like a vole or a field mouse oblivious to the danger above. Rough-legged hawks expend precious energy hovering and fighting the challenging winds while Northern harriers fly low into the gusts gliding from side-to-side over the winter grasses along the perimeters of ditches and fields watching for signs of prey. The Short-eared owls are hunkered down in the shelter of the prairie grasses and the thick cover along the drainage ditches and fence-rows until late afternoon when the sun nears the southwestern horizon. On this day though, with the strong and relentless winds, the medium-sized owls may wait for conditions to improve before taking to the sky for the hunt. The Short-eared owls are wintering on our restored prairies and CRP grasslands of Northeastern Illinois and Northwestern Indiana and are considered a medium-distance migrant that will leave their wintering sites by March. There was a time in Illinois when Short-eared owls were common throughout the state but they are now an endangered native. Wetlands and grasslands destruction is the main reason for their decline. Restoration of large areas of grasslands and wetlands would provide a safe place to winter and could also provide a safe place to nest someday.
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 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.
November 17, 2018 – A small bird of prey sat perched on an old weathered fence post just before sunset near The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands restored prairies in Newton county Indiana. The small yellow eyed raptor, about the size of a crow, and sometimes referred to as “the ghost of the grasslands”, is a Short-eared owl. A number of Short-eared owls recently seen at the Kankakee Sands have found the perfect prairie habitat for food and shelter while they spend those cold, dusky winter months waiting for spring. These wintering owls can also be seen in the rural areas of Kankakee and Iroquois counties hunting at dusk or just before sunrise.
March 9, 2018 – The light had changed on the prairie as it neared the late part of the afternoon. The sun, now in the western sky, cast a warm glow that saturated the earthy colors at the Kankakee sands. It was like a switch had been thrown when they suddenly appeared, the Short-eared owls were up and hunting! Two of the owls swooped in working together to drive away a Northern Harrier that was gliding low just above the prairie in search of its’ next meal. Two other owls could be seen perched on small bushes that stood above the tall brown grasses to the north. The irregular flight path of the hunting owls had them flying away but quick turns brought them back towards me for a fly by and then away again as they continued their search for prey. A cloud bank above the western horizon quickly narrowed the window of light needed for my camera, but a quick drive though the Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands located 7 more of these remarkable owls. Swooping and banking as the light grew dim the Short-eared owls took over the evening skies at the Kankakee Sands while the Northern Harriers and Rough-legged hawks found their roosts for the night.
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.