Short-eared Owl

The bright round yellow eyes of the Short-eared owl are sharp and watching for prey as it swoops just above the tall prairie grasses.

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.

Busy defending its’ hunting territory from another owl, the medium-sized short-eared owl appears to fly with purpose.

Snowy Owl

Stretching before flying off to another perch, the Snowy owl shows its large yellow eyes just before spreading it’s wings.

December 24, 2020 – Perched at the top of a utility pole calmly scanning the surrounding landscape for prey, a beautiful Snowy owl appears in Iroquois County the day before our first snow. To the Inuit people of the north, the owl represents guidance and wisdom and has an important relationship with both humans and the environment. Snowy owl sightings have been reported in Northern Illinois and Northern Indiana recently as more birds move south to escape the blizzards and sub-temperatures of the Arctic. As I write this, there are blizzard warnings in the area of Iqaluit in the territory of Nunavut in Canada as a low pressure system is making its way through Hudson Bay toward southern Baffin Island bringing cold temperatures, snow, and 50 mile per hour winds. Here in northern Illinois the arriving Snowy owls are enjoying 37 degrees with 11 mile an hour winds on the mostly flat and sleeping winter landscape of the prairie state that somewhat resembles the Arctic tundra above the tree line, a place familiar to the owls. The female Snowy owl is larger than the male and has a wingspan of about 4.5 feet and weighs almost 5 pounds. They have a white face and large yellow eyes, a black bill surrounded by feathers, and they have acute hearing and vision. These Arctic owls are the heaviest owls in North America. To observe them flying low over corn stubble here in Illinois, with their large white wings slowly flapping as they make their approach and glide towards a low perch with some cover hundreds of yards away is an amazing sight. The Snowy owls that have come south for the winter will start moving northward toward their breeding grounds in the Arctic in February and March, and most will be gone by April. The owls will be back on their snow covered breeding grounds where the courtship will start in early May. The cycle will continue high in the north as new generations will be fed, protected, and fledged, and maybe even spend the cold months in a field near you, here in Illinois.

Searching for prey from the vantage of a utility pole, the Snowy owl looks towards the rear for any movement.

The Pigeon Hawk

Just east of Kankakee recently, a Merlin falcon looks down from its’ tree perch watching for an ambush opportunity.

January 23, 2010 – The Merlin falcon is a small but fierce hunter that is a little larger and heavier than the American kestrel. Looking somewhat like a chunky pigeon in flight the Merlin was once known as the pigeon hawk. The stealthy falcon lacks the bold color patterns and black “mustache” that adorns the face of the more common Kestrel. The Merlin’s may show a faint “mustache”, the black plumage on the sides of the face, but the bird appears a bit drab overall compared to the smaller and more colorful Kestrel. The female Merlin, like other birds of prey, is larger than the male. A large female with a recent catch of a small bird was facing away from me as it sat on a roadway in Iroquois county a few years back. From a distance the bird looked like a small Peregrine falcon, its’ solid blue-gray back and wings stood out and its’ thick body confused me at first until the bird took to the air with its’ prey. At that point I recognized it as a Merlin. The little Merlin is an avian hunting master that can send a flock of birds into a mass of fear and confusion. Outmaneuvering the unfortunate winged victims like Starlings, Sparrows and even small ducks, the Merlin,with a swift and precise attack snags its’ targeted prey while in flight. It also plucks dragonflies and other insects out of midair during its’ migration for a quick and easy snack. If you are fortunate enough to see a Merlin in our area of Northeastern Illinois it will most likely be during the winter months but sightings of the Merlin are becoming more common as the population of the little falcon has improved. The Merlin is known to breed in the boreal forests of the north but the discovery of a hatchling on the ground in Northwestern Cook county in 2016 may signify that they are expanding their breeding range.

A Merlin rests on a fence post keeping an eye on some feeding tree sparrows at the edge of a gravel road.

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.

Snowy Owl

A Snowy owl is perched on a utility pole this past week in Iroquois county.

December 5, 2019 -Recently, on the 18th of November, the people of Barrow Alaska, at a latitude of 71º north, got their last glimpse of the Sun until late January 2020. Over these next few months, winters’ frigid grip will take hold in the extreme for the people and the wildlife above the arctic circle. Those high latitudes will become a dim world of unforgiving temperatures, short days, civil twilight, and darkness. One feathery inhabitant of the north is the Snowy owl, also known as the Snow owl, Arctic owl, and Ukpik in the Inukitut language of the Inuit people that live north of the tree line. Many of these beautiful white owls will move south off of their summer nesting range for the winter, but not all. According to Project Snow Storm, an ongoing research project into the yearly movements of Snowy owls, some of the owls actually move further north onto the Arctic sea ice to hunt through the winter. The second largest and heaviest owl in North America, the Snowy owl lives and breeds on the arctic tundra and spends the winter over a wide range from the interior and southern coastline of Alaska, across the Northwest Territories, most of Canada and south into the northern two-thirds of the United State including the flat agricultural land of Illinois. Some years, here in Illinois, higher numbers of Snowy owls are recorded, a phenomenon known as irruptions. Those record years of snowy invasions average every four or five years with the so called mega-irruptions bringing more owls further south then normal. I usually record a few Snowy owls in our area each year, but last year, 2017-18, I recorded seven and of course many other areas of Illinois saw an increase. Research has proven that an increase in prey animals like lemmings and voles on the breeding grounds of Snowy owls also insures the possibility of a successful nesting season. Irruption years of these white raptors spreading southward from their breeding range in the land of the midnight sun is always exciting and increases the chance encounter to actually witness this large white owl hunting over the croplands of Illinois.

The feather covered feet of the Snowy owl are visible on the flying raptor.

The Lincoln’s Sparrow

A Lincoln’s Sparrow perched on a branch with its’ feathers raised on its’ crown.

October 31, 2019 – The Lincoln’s sparrow is a cautious little bird that doesn’t stray far from the safety of a partially obscured perch in a small shrub at the edge of the woods as it surveys it’s surroundings. The delightful little migratory visitor with its’ buff-colored chest and sides, cream-colored belly, and well defined dark streaks that run through those buffy areas, appears more light-colored overall than some of the other sparrows in and around the woods. The Lincoln’s sparrow has a finely detailed head with a brown, black, and gray striped crown, that sometimes in a moment of excitement, is raised into a crest. Compared to other sparrows, the Song sparrow for example that has more of a muddied color pattern, the Lincoln’s sparrow stands out like the new kid on the block because of those bold, sharp, streaked flanks, and the buff-colored chest that gives the bird an overall elegant appearance that easily captures one’s interest. The Lincoln’s sparrow is a rare winter visitor, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, that winters from the southern United States south to central America. It is known to venture further than other similar species of sparrows during their winter migration which starts in September. The little sparrow has been recorded as far south as Panama in Central America,with one record apparently in northern Venezuela. The wandering Lincoln’s sparrow is reported every year during the winter months on the islands in the Caribbean. The northbound sparrow will make another appearance in Illinois in late April. Although records do show the Lincoln’s sparrow occasionally nesting in Illinois they are mostly known to nest in the boreal forests from northern Wisconsin across Canada and north into Alaska.

The perched sparrow shows the buff-colored chest with dark lines over its’ cream-colored belly.

Dark-eyed Junco

A perched Dark-eyed junco male shows its’ light gray underside and the dark gray of its’ upper body.

October 24, 2019 – The Dark-eyed junco is a small songbird that winters here in Illinois. The male of the slate-colored form of junco that we see here in the Midwest is dark gray with a very dark hood while the female’s feathers are lighter shades of brown and gray, but both the male and the female juncos have white outer tail feathers that are apparent when the birds are in flight. Juncos are a medium-sized sparrow that stand out against the snowy landscape looking somewhat like bouncing lumps of coal on a white sheet as they hop about scratching the icy snow-cover below the brown, dried-out plants vigorously searching for fallen seeds. The juncos are quite common at backyard feeders during the winter where they are regularly seen searching below the feeders with other foraging winter birds. Often called “snowbirds” the Dark-eyed Junco is a familiar sight along woodland trails during those cold months. The little birds are easily flushed to the the thick cover of leafless bushes were they can find protection in the dense shadowy web of dormant branches. During winter storms the little birds can seek shelter in those bushy thickets or quickly escape predators like hawks, foxes, and Bobcats when threatened. The Dark-eyed junco spends the summer during the nesting season in the northern United States and north of the boarder in most of Canada. They start arriving in Illinois during the fall migration in August for their winter stay. The spring migration can start as early as February. It seems, in my opinion, that there cannot be a more thought evoking snow covered winter scene, whether it is a first hand experience along a trail, conjured from ones’ memory, or displayed on a canvas washed by the artists brush, that doesn’t include those Dark-eyed juncos feeding with other winter wildlife on a dim gray and cold afternoon.

The female (Slate-colored) Dark-eyed junco has much lighter colors of gray and brown.