“Whoooo” is Out on the Illinois Prairie this Winter?

I still am, but not the Snowy Owls!

Regular readers of this space know that I enjoy looking for Snowy Owls during the winter months.  Over the last several years I have enjoyed searching for, and finding, these beautiful visitors from the Arctic North.  This winter has been no exception, at least in the searching part!  The finding has been more than a little sparse.  As of this writing (February 5), I have not spotted even one Snowy Owl on my frequent forays to the north-central Illinois grounds that they usually inhabit in the winter.

Here’s a picture of what I was looking for out on the prairie recently. This picture was taken in late February, 2022 when a Snowy Owl irruption was taking place. It was one of over twenty occasions where I saw and photographed Snowy Owls that season. This year, I haven’t seen one!

The reasons for the variability in the Snowy Owl migration to northern Illinois are many and a little vague.  Some say the Snowy Owls come down south in greater numbers when they have had an unusually successful breeding season.  The theory being that the younger owls spread out further than normal in looking for their own territory.  Another theory is that they migrate south looking for more plentiful food when the lemming population in the Arctic crashes.  At any rate, this winter season has seen very few Snowy Owls making it as far south as Illinois.  I know of only two of them that have been reported, one in the Chicago lakefront at Montrose Beach and one in central Illinois in Macon County.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t more out there, though.  In fact, I have kept on searching, even though I think this year may be a lost cause for me in finding any Snowys.

One of my recent searches during our bitter Arctic cold snap turned up a different interesting find.  A bird that is slightly more common in Illinois than the Snowy Owl, but still rare enough to have made my day when I saw one at first, and then two more on my fateful trip: the Short-eared Owl.  I was driving very slowly down a country road where I had seen many Snowy Owls in prior years and was keeping a sharp lookout in the beautiful, snow-covered fields for signs of a Snowy Owl sitting motionless amid the snow.  It’s always a thrill to see a “snow pile” that suddenly moves or otherwise resolves itself as a Snowy Owl and I was looking with eager anticipation, even though I’d had no luck in finding them this season.  As I scanned both sides of the recently plowed road, a dark, fairly good-sized bird jumped up from the snowbank on the side of the road right next to my car.  I was briefly startled as the bird was really close as it flew up and landed about 40 yards behind my car.  I stopped and looked behind me as the bird was camouflaged against the snow by chunks of dirt that the plow had scraped up from the shoulder of the road.  I finally picked the shape of the bird out amidst the dirt clods and focused on it with my zoom lens.  At this point, I thought the bird was a small hawk and wasn’t too excited.  However, as I looked at the image in my viewfinder, I couldn’t see a head or neck on the bird which I thought was odd for a hawk.  I thought maybe the “hawk” was hunched over and looking away from me, giving its unusual appearance.  As the bird came into focus though, I saw a pair of shockingly bright yellow eyes looking back at me from the flat face of an owl: a Short-eared Owl!

When I finally got the mystery bird that flew up next to my car in focus, this is what I saw looking back at me: a Short-eared Owl!
It was a pretty exciting find for me!

This was the first time I had seen a Short-eared Owl in person.  I was planning on making a trip to one of the forest preserves in the Fox Valley area, where they are known to frequent, to try to get some pictures of them.  In fact, I had considered going to one of those preserves that very day! It was very serendipitous that this bird would show up out on the Snowy Owl grounds for me!  I took quite a few more pictures and then slowly resumed my hunt for Snowys.  About 250 yards further down the road, another Short-eared Owl flew up from the roadside.  My luck was getting better!  The two owls teamed up to fly around the perimeter of a several-acre section of tall grasses that were growing on both sides of the road, hunting for voles and mice.  It was spectacular to see them hunting from such close proximity!  The owls weren’t at all shy and frequently landed within about 150 feet of my car along the road’s edge.  In fact, they were so hospitable to my watching them that I called a fellow birding friend who lived very close by and told him about the owls so he could get an opportunity to see them too.  He was there in less than ten minutes and the birds continued to put on a show for both of us!  

Here’s a second short-eared owl that I found a short distance away from where the first one was spotted. This one and the other one circled a weedy area together, looking for mice and voles.
Here’s a view of one of the short-eared owls as it flew around the weed patch hunting for its prey. They are extremely maneuverable flyers, able to make quick turns and dives onto a hapless mouse or vole.

It was getting late in the afternoon and starting to get dark when I said goodbye to my friend and started to make my way back home.  I hadn’t traveled more than a quarter mile down the road when a third Short-eared Owl flew up from behind my car and circled around, landing about thirty yards in front of me!  This owl was the smallest of the three and I wasn’t sure that I’d get good pictures of him/her as it was getting pretty dark.  I did get a few fairly good pictures though as a final parting gift of the day’s “owl encounter.”   

Here’s a photograph of the third and last short-eared owl I saw on this trip. He surprised me by flying up as it was getting dark as I was leaving the area. It was a really wonderful experience to see these little owls!

As I mentioned earlier, the Short-eared Owls are not particularly large birds as raptors go.  They are much smaller than Snowy and Great Horned Owls and are even slightly smaller than Barred Owls.  They average from 13 – 17 inches tall and are about the size of a crow.  They were once relatively common in the Fox Valley area as owls go, but now they are classified as one of the Common Birds in Steep Decline due to habitat degradation and loss.  As I also mentioned, my encounter with these Short-eared Owls was the first time I had ever personally seen them, and I spend a lot of time outdoors in areas where they can occur! Short-eared Owls are also classified as a State Endangered Species according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.    

Here’s a photograph of the third and last short-eared owl I saw on this trip. He surprised me by flying up as it was getting dark as I was leaving the area. It was a really wonderful experience to see these little owls!

Next time you’re out in a rural area with grassland or low crops, especially in the winter, you may be surprised to see one of these interesting little owls!  Until next time, enjoy the natural wonders that our beautiful Fox River Valley provides!

Here’s a view of one of the owls I saw as it flew away from me on its way out of the area. I hope I’ll see them again out here sometime! Happy trails little owl!
All photos taken by Tom Schrader