|Short-eared owl in flight|
The short-eared owls thrive in the grasslands - many of which have completely disappeared across the state of Illinois, except in the "strip pits". The rolling hills and deep valleys of reclaimed strip mine ground.
Here in the strip pits that litter the southern Illinois landscape the owls find the perfect habitat and a ready supply of their favorite foods, mice, voles, and other small rodents. Several state parks have regular wintering populations and they can be seen easily in the late winter afternoons, soaring over the grassland, across dormant agricultural fields, and gliding low along the edges of the marshes and pot holes.
My late winter afternoons of late have been spent sitting high on the strip hills, nestled into the grass listening to the owls odd little call that almost sounds like a scratchy voiced cat meowing, and watching them soar and glide in the rays of the winter sun.
You can hear the variety of call that the short eared owls make by visiting the Cornell Lab of Ornithology web site. Pay close attention the winter roosting call, that's the most often heard echoing across the grasslands this time of year.
Quick facts about these small wonders from the Illinois Raptor Center :
Endangered in Illinois. Very few pairs nest in the state.
Short-eared owls are active at dusk and dawn. Some groups have been seen spending the winter in Illinois.
On the ground in wet prairie among tall grasses and reeds.
They lay 4-8 eggs.
Short-eared owls often roost with their counterpart, the northern harrier. If you see harriers, be alert for short-eared owls.
As spring approaches the sightings will dwindle, and most will move on to nesting sites in more hospitable areas, but my hope is that someday soon I will find them nesting in the tall grass of the strip pits and will know that the once scarred and stripped land has truly come full circle and is back to it's once former glory.