A Wet Christmas Morning

December 24, 2023 – It was a wet, dreary, and cold Christmas morning in 2015 when I headed out early to find and photograph a Snowy owl wintering south of Kankakee, an owl I had previously seen in that area over the past few weeks. When I arrived at the general location of the most recent sightings of the great white bird, I turned west off the main highway onto a small rural road and almost instantly was rewarded. About 75 yards down the road on the right, standing out like a beacon of white in the gray gloom of a steady cold winter rain, was the soggy-looking Snowy owl. I drove past where the bird was sitting a short distance out in the bean stubble and turned the truck around for a better vantage. I slowly and cautiously pulled up where I could safely observe the bird and got some photos out the driver’s side window, careful not to disturb the Arctic visitor. Even though the lighting couldn’t get any worse, I settled in to enjoy the moment, which lasted for over an hour. The owl seemed to have no interest in me as it preened its wet feathers with a persistent but gentle focus, dragging each feather through its sharply pointed bill multiple times, squeezing out the dampness, and straightening the plumes. Occasionally, the owl would rise on its feet and shake violently, the wetness of the relentless and confounded rain off its ruffled feathers, only to settle back to continue preening.

Snowy owl shaking the wetness from its feathers during a steady rain.

Snowy owls escape the cold, snow, and fierce blizzards of the Arctic winter by going south, many well into the interior of the United States. Some years are exceptional; the migration becomes very exciting when there is an irruption of Snowy owls, with record numbers appearing throughout the lower forty-eight. The excitement and stories quickly spread through the birding community and the general public as owl sightings began to add up. Irruptions coincide with the increase in the Lemming population in the north, a primary food source of the owls. When the lemmings do well, the owls do well, but when the lemmings crash, the owl population drops. The owl eventually flew a short distance to a grassy waterway that snaked through the field and hunkered down in the soft cover. Feeling the chill, I fired up the truck and headed towards town with warm and lasting memories of a visitor from the high north that I was lucky enough to spend some time with on a cold, wet Christmas morning.

The owl eventually flew a short distance to a grassy waterway that snaked through the field and hunkered down in the soft cover.

The Short-eared Owl

Blending in with the dry brown winter grasses a Short-eared owl sits motionless on a cold February morning.

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.

A little Short-eared owl finds shelter along an eroded ditch bank in Iroquois County.