Every year our local Audubon Society sponsors a field trip to Prairie State Park and the surrounding area in search of Short-eared Owls. It's an all day trip, and there are no guarantees. The state park is approximately 100 miles away, and it's easy to stay home instead of making the committment of time and energy necessary to see the owls.
What a surprise it was, then, when local birder Charley Burwick discovered 2 Short-eared owls in the early pre-dawn hours on Saturday, the day of our annual Greene County Christmas Bird Count.
Work conflicts prevented me from visiting the site earlier, but this evening I set out with Marvin DeJong at 3:45 pm to view the birds. Marvin had photographed them last evening, so he knew exactly the area to stake out, and the odds were in our favor to relocate the owls. Here's one of his pictures from last evening.
The timing was totally a surprise to me, however. In my previous experiences with the owl species, it was very near dusk when the Northern Harriers checked out, and the Short-eared Owls checked in. Perhaps the appearance of only one Northern Harrier today provided a reason for the owls to take over the hunting grounds early. Niche partitioning..... if the day hunters are a "no show", the night hunters fill in this promising early crepuscular hunting niche. On the prairie west of here, I have once seen harriers and owls compete aggressively for hunting territory as dusk approached.
Tuesday, we arrived at Nixon farm at 4:10 pm on a balmy late fall afternoon. We set up our tripods to await the action. Between 4:15 and 4:20, a good 45 minutes before sundown, we spotted our first two owls. The slow wing beats and acrobatics of the Short-eared Owls never fail to amaze me, but in the bright light of the pre-dusk sun, the colors jumped out at me. The beige leading edge of the wings appeared bright yellow in the horizontal rays of the sun. The facial disc glowed. The birds gracefully and gently winged their way back and forth across the field, alighting for brief moments before soaring again. A third owl appeared. The birds began to interact with one another, shifting, diving, and climbing in an avian mid-air ballet. It was truly an incredible few moments with Nature: colorful, dynamic, flowing and vibrant.........., far more beautiful than a setting sun alone.
Photos Courtesy of Marvin DeJong