Snow, cold bring endangered birds into view
Perched on the soft, exposed, dried grasses and using a snowbank 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 most likely would be in that brief time at dawn or dusk when the owl might be perched on a fencepost or gliding low over the grasslands searching for small prey animals.
The negative temperatures with dangerous wind chills might 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 quite easily could pass right by these midsize owls and never see them. One most certainly can see from the photos how well the colors of the short-eared owls blend in with the dried vegetation they are sitting on.
The winter months in northeast Illinois brings the best opportunity to observe the short-eared owl.
Rural areas set aside for the Conservation Reserve Program and restored prairies are good places to stake out in the late afternoon with binoculars and patience to scan the area for a perched or low-flying bird that might 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’s Kankakee Sands project, north of Morocco in Newton County, Ind., is a short drive east of Kankakee and also is 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 of the short-eared owl, from mid-March to May, 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 in Jasper County in southeastern Illinois. Prairie Ridge boasts the largest population of nesting short-eared owls in Illinois, while providing nearly 2,000 acres of grassland habitat.
In Canada and the U.S., 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.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Prairie Ridge, about 30 miles southeast of Effingham, also is the only remaining nesting area of the greater prairie chicken and the site of a cooperative project of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Illinois Audubon Society, which are joint owners of the properties.
It also provides nesting grounds for the state’s largest breeding populations of northern harriers and for American and least bitterns, king rail, upland sandpiper, barn owl, eastern meadowlark loggerhead shrike, Henslow’s and grasshopper sparrows, dickcissel and sedge wren.
Effingham is 153 miles south of Kankakee via Interstate 57.