Bird #349 — Short-eared Owl

asio (long-eared owl) flammeus (flaming)

Tuesday, February 7, 1995 — 5:45 pm

Du Page County, Illinois — Munger Road — Pratts Wayne Woods Forest Preserve

I hadn’t been birding around home much in recent months, and I hadn’t been thinking about it much. But a week or so ago I read The Feather Quest by Pete Dunne and it gave me inspiration. On Monday afternoon, I called the bird hotline for the first time in several years. I wasn’t planning on doing any birding, but I wondered if the line was still in existence. Short-eared Owls, as many as six of them, were reported from Pratts Wayne Woods. This was too close to pass up.  I didn’t have binoculars or warm clothes with me, but I determined to come prepared on Tuesday.

Munger Road cuts through the forest preserve, and for most of the way, it was bordered by weedy fields or cornfields that had been cut. There was about three inches of snow on the ground. As soon as I turned on Munger Road, I spotted an American Kestrel and a dark-phase Red-tailed Hawk. Moments later five cock Ring-necked Pheasants walked across the road in front of my car. I saw a few other birders, but it was still pretty light and the owls weren’t supposed to show themselves until sunset.

But on the other hand, the field guides say that Short-eared Owls sometimes hunt during the daytime. When I spotted two birds coursing low over a weedy field, I got excited. I jumped out of the car, but they were immature Northern Harriers. I drove back and forth for a while, getting out occasionally to scope the fields, but all I saw were two more Red-tailed Hawks and three deer.  The wind was whipping across the open fields, and I couldn’t stay outside long.

As it got closer to dark, I found what I thought the most likely spot and parked. A few minutes later an old guy pulled up and asked if I was looking for owls.  He told me he was going to look further up the road. I watched for owls and watched him to see if he was seeing any. It was getting pretty dark, and the sun was going behind a bank of clouds on the horizon. There was a beautiful red sunset, but that wasn’t what I was looking for. A few other birders were driving around, but I didn’t see anyone who looked like he was seeing owls. Disappointment was setting in when the old guy came by again. He said he had seen two about a quarter mile from where I sat, where Forest Preserve Drive intersects Munger Road. I thanked him and headed up that way, but I was skeptical. I figured he had just seen the harriers. I turned up Forest Preserve Drive and followed it until it entered a housing development. I was alone in the area now. It was all but dark and very cold. I figured I’d missed the owls. I felt lonely and discouraged, knowing that I was 20 miles from home and had wasted most of an evening. I turned around and headed back toward Munger Road, going slowly, but planning on heading for home.

And then I saw a large bird out over the field, silhouetted against what little light was left. I pulled over quickly and got out. I knew immediately it was an owl.  Its profile was weird. It had a normal bird’s body with long wings and a flared tail, but instead of a normal bird head, somebody had pasted a 12” softball on the shoulders. At least that’s what it looked like; blunt, rounded and … owlish. The books say that Short-eared Owls are a bit smaller than crows, but this one looked pretty big to me. Maybe the head shape and the fact that it was silhouetted in the dark made things deceptive. It was about 50 yards away over the cornfield where I had seen the harriers. It never went more than 20 feet above the ground. Its flight was erratic. Short glides would lead to quick flaps with the wings held in a “V.”  It changed direction frequently and a few times poised in place on the wind for a few seconds. It looked like a giant butterfly in slow motion. Twice it dropped down to the ground. The first time it rose up again so quickly that it looked like it bounced. The second time it stood on the ground for maybe a second. If it had been any darker out, or if my binoculars had been of any lesser quality, I wouldn’t have been able to see any field marks, and I would have been in a quandary about whether to count it. As it was, I could get no sense of face. The head was just a dark ball. The wing marks I did see. I was able to make out the pale buffy areas on the top surface against the darker feathers. The black wrist marks on the underside of the wings stood out markedly against the under-wings that looked white with black tips. After fluttering around for a few minutes, it headed up a little ridge to my left over a weedy field, then disappeared into the gloom. While I was watching it, I heard a single call off to my right that sounded a little cat-like.  I’m pretty sure it was another owl, but I didn’t see it.

I drove around for a few more minutes.  It was now full night, but I hoped to see one in my headlights. I soon left.  On the way out, I saw another birder, a guy I had talked to briefly earlier. He was standing in a small wooded area. He was wearing a trench coat and a furry hat and had no binoculars. His hands were in his pockets and he was staring up into the trees. It was obvious that he was new at this game and didn’t know a thing about Short-eared Owls.  (Earlier he had told me he was a bird watcher, not a birder, sure evidence of a rookie.) I contemplated stopping and telling him where I saw the owl, but I didn’t. I figured in the pitch dark, without binoculars, he had as good a chance in the woods as anywhere.

The human mind is a funny thing. One minute I had been cold, lonely and discouraged. Three minutes later I was happy and content. It had all been worthwhile after all.

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