* All images captured by local wildlife photographer, Stephen Barten.
Most owls are nocturnal creatures. They sleep by day and are active at night. But one species is largely diurnal or, more accurately, crepuscular. It hunts during early and late daylight hours, giving birders and other onlookers an opportunity to watch it fly, pounce, perch without the challenge of darkness. That species is the Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus), one of the most widely distributed owl species in the world.
Only twice had I encountered single Short-eared Owls in our area, both times in Cook County’s Spring Creek Forest Preserve, and both times wholly unanticipated. On each occasion, the owl circled low overhead and “spoke” to me and a companion with its raspy bark. The apparent friendliness to humans endeared the species to me and I subsequently dubbed it my favorite owl.
Months and years separated the sightings. I watched Short-eared Owls hunt at a small, grassy airport in rural New York; over the vast fields at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, nearly two hours southeast of Barrington; in the Galapagos Islands (though that one is a distinct sub-species). I hoped each year to encounter one closer to home but with no success.
This winter was different. I received postings from friends that Short-eared Owls – several of them – appeared each afternoon at the Brunner Family Farm Forest Preserve between Dundee and Algonquin. My husband and I headed there one January afternoon and have returned several times since. The owls have a dedicated fan club, most of whose members have long, heavy camera lenses to capture their striking features and dramatic flights.
We go only with binoculars and a telescope. The owls tend to appear mid-afternoon – a bit earlier on the shortest of days in late December, and around 3:30 to 4 as daylight grows longer. It’s easier to spot them against a snow-covered landscape; once the snow disappears, the cryptic pattern of their beige, brown, white and black plumage blends right in with the tawny grasses. The “ears” in the name are not actually ears but rather short feather tufts that serve no useful purpose other than to add additional detail to the owl’s face and to distinguish it from its Long-eared Owl cousin.
Every sighting is a thrill. When one takes flight, what captures my attention is the surprising breadth of the wingspan; the contrast in plumage above and below the wings; the rusty patches atop the wings; the seeming weightlessness that is almost mothlike; the flight pattern of several wingbeats and a long glide; the short barred tail. When at rest in the grasses, it’s the eyes – those brilliant yellow eyes rendered larger and more piercing by the black feathers that outline them. It’s easy to linger at the scope for minutes on end, gazing at those eyes and at the mottled feather patterns as the bird turns its head fitfully from one side to another in search of prey or a competitor.
Often that competitor is a Northern Harrier, another raptor, visually striking in its own right, that has become more common locally in recent years. Every time we’ve watched owls at the preserve, harriers have been coursing over the same fields. Occasionally one species challenges the other for some rodent it has snatched from the ground.
As I often do, I looked up Robert Ridgeway’s description of Short-eared Owls in his 1889 Birds of Illinois and found our observations consistent with one he includes from a Mr. Nelson who described the owls then as “common everywhere” in winter. He wrote, “[They] remain concealed in a bunch of grass or reeds until about two o’clock p.m., when they commence flying low over the ground in search of their prey.” Ridgeway informs us that one of the nicknames for the Short-eared Owl is Prairie Owl. That name further endears the species to me. With all the grassland restoration efforts underway by Citizens for Conservation and other groups, we can hope that the Prairie Owl will once again become common everywhere, as it is this winter at Brunner Forest Preserve.
About Wendy Paulson
Wendy Paulson has lived in Barrington Hills since 1975, and has led bird walks in the area for many years. She re-established the Nature Lady program in the Barrington 220 school district and St. Anne’s in the late 70s, under the auspices of The Garden Club and Little Garden Club of Barrington. Wendy developed the education program for Citizens for Conservation, initiated and edited its newsletter, and has been an active volunteer with CFC for over 30 years.
During interludes in New York City and Washington, DC, Wendy taught classes about birds in the public schools and is helping to develop a similar program in Chicago public schools with Openlands.
She is chairman of The Bobolink Foundation, serves on the board or advisory committee of multiple conservation and bird-related organizations, both domestic and international, and is former chairman of IL and NY chapters of The Nature Conservancy.
Wendy and her husband Hank have two grown children and are avid hikers, cyclists, and kayakers.
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