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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Short-eared Owls Abound

Short-eared owl in flight
The return every winter of the short-eared owls to the rolling strip pit hills of southwestern Illinois could be considered a mine reclamation success story.  The short eared owl is considered  endangered in Illinois - and the primary cause of it's decline is the loss of habitat.

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 :

 Quick Facts about short-eared owls:
mostly voles.
Endangered in Illinois. Very few pairs nest in the state.
When Can We See Them?
Short-eared owls are active at dusk and dawn. Some groups have been seen spending the winter in Illinois.

Nesting Behavior:
On the ground in wet prairie among tall grasses and reeds.
They lay 4-8 eggs.
How do we find them?
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.  



  1. Awesome photos Gretchen! A snowy owl has been sighted again this year at the Horicon Marsh just south of Fond du Lac. There was also one on Lake Winnebago last winter. You should add that stop to your trek up to Fond du Lac!

  2. Wonderful photos of the short-eared! I have yet to see this species in the wild, but am hoping to. It winters occasionally in upstate New York, an hour or two north of where I am, on the wide expanses near Lake Ontario. Maybe someday... Thanks!