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.