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Bird Spotting at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

Short-eared owl at Midewin NTP. Photo by Ken Murphy.

Short-eared owl at Midewin NTP. Photo by Ken Murphy

Short-eared owls, northern harriers and more are delighting visitors now with late-afternoon aerial feeding dives and competitions at the USDA Forest Service Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Kestrels, Cooper’s hawks, great horned owls, barred owls and more are also active overwintering there.

The fence along the pasture on the east side of the Group 63 Trail is fertile ground for dedicated bird watchers. In the late afternoon hours just before sunset, short-eared owls and northern harriers have been competing in the sky for voles on the ground.

The east pasture is where bison graze, creating shorter grasses and the perfect feeding ground where birds can more easily spot prey. Grazing also stirs rodents, which is why coyotes follow the herd and can be heard howling in the distance starting at about 4 p.m. Park at the Iron Bridge Trailhead: 41°22'43.9"N 88°07'23.0"W.

“Both northern harriers and short-eared owls are native grassland birds in Illinois, and they can possibly be seen throughout the year at Midewin NTP. However, both species are rare here during the nesting season, and the timing of the recent sightings suggests that these are winter migrant birds that are using the expansive grasslands of Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie to forage.” says Midewin NTP restoration team leader Michael Redmer.

Short-eared owls are known for being able to travel great distances, with recorded migrations as long as 1,200 miles. Identify them by their yellow, piercing eyes and beige-colored faces.

Northern Harrier at Midewin NTP. Photo by Ken Murphy.

 Northern harriers have white on their backsides, and their tails are longer than the tails of short-eared owls. Like owls, they rely on hearing, as well as vision to capture prey. Their disk-shaped face looks and functions much like an owl’s face, with stiff facial feathers helping to direct sound to the ears.

In the SouthPatrol Road Prairie restoration area, those looking for owls will find many photo opportunities: Prairie Creek is about a 15-minute walk north Boathouse Road. Across from the northwest corner of the restoration area stands a white oak tree that was instrumental hundreds of years ago in establishing Wilmington Township boundary lines.

Parking: 41°20'32.2"N 88°10'16.5"W.

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