Photo by Gretchen Steele

February 1, 2024

Lessons Learned from My Love Affair with the Owls

In the quiet embrace of nature’s twilight symphony, I embarked on a journey that would span nearly 20 years, following a colony of enigmatic short-eared owls. What started as a fleeting fascination when I kicked up half a dozen of the bright yellow-eyed little owls late one winter afternoon in Pyramid State Recreation Area (SRA) evolved into a profound connection, unveiling a tapestry of lessons that transcended the boundaries of the avian world.

As the sun dipped below the Perry County horizon, casting its warm hues across the sprawling grasslands, I found myself drawn to the mysterious allure of the short-eared owl. Their distinctive tuftless heads and piercing yellow eyes seemed to hold the secrets of the grasslands. I couldn’t resist unraveling the threads that wove their stories.

I had to learn more about these distinctive little owls with such striking and expressive round faces. I often thought the black rings around their eyes looked much like mascara left on overnight and smudged. I was amazed by how large and floppy their wings were in flight and how they folded into such a small, compact little owl when perched on a fence post or sitting in a fallow agricultural field.

A tan and brown owl soars against a bright blue sky with wispy clouds.
Photo by Gretchen Steele.

As distinctive and notable as their faces were, the rest of them, colored brownish and beige and mottled, were excellently camouflaged. Many an evening in the fading light, I would lose sight of them flying low over the corn stubble, weeds, and grasslands only to discover they were sitting mere feet away from me, tucked into the leftover cornstalks or on a tussock of grass.

Patience became my closest companion as I navigated through that first winter with the Pyramid colony. I learned that while not particularly skittish, they didn’t much care for lots of human activity. I spent day after day waiting for them to make their sudden appearance up out of a small waterway and draw between the surface-mined hills each evening. Although they are diurnal feeders, I rarely saw them in the early morning pre-dawn light. No matter how much I wished for them to come out in the rich golden honey-colored light of late afternoon, they always waited until just about an hour or less before sunset to suddenly erupt into sky soaring high over the grasslands.

As Tih-Fen Ting and Robert J. Reber explained in a February 2023 OutdoorIllinois Journal article, the habitat that makes up reclaimed surface mine ground at Pyramid SRA, with its focus on grassland management, is excellent for the gregarious and social little birds. The combination of waterways, grasslands and agricultural fields offers the owls excellent hunting grounds for a diet that is primarily made up of small mammals such as voles, shrews and mice.

After watching what I assumed to be the same winter colony over several winters, it seemed as if some in the colony began to recognize me. Many evenings, they would perform flyby maneuvers very close to my face or my vehicle as if they were watching me. They would turn and peer at me with their piercing yellow eyes, cocking their distinctive round faces this way and that, as if they were confirming that, yes, it’s that same “thing” that’s out here all the time. No danger here. The owls also took to perching closer to me and calling out their odd “bark.” To me, their bark sounded more like mewing kittens than a bark.

Over the years, I learned that usually, they arrived about the same time the first snow geese showed up in early November. Each year, for nearly seven years, they returned to those same fields. Arriving with the northern harriers and snow geese. Then suddenly, word was out. It spread through the birding and photography communities with lightning speed, and my primarily solitary evenings with the owls were over. Crowds arrived each day at about 3 p.m., setting up cameras, spotting scopes, and buzzing back and forth from field to field. I watched with trepidation as the number of owls that flew and hunted each evening slowly declined.

Against a bright blue sky is a grassy landscape with dark green trees along the horizon.
Pyramid State Recreation Area. Photo by Stephen Tillman, Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

The following year, the short-eared owls were nowhere to be seen. I spent that entire season looking for them throughout their likely habitat in Pyramid SRA. Finally, one cold, snowy evening in January, I heard their odd call over one of the ridgelines. I saw one, two, and several more take flight from the scrub brush. Soon nearly a dozen were soaring over the nearby fallow field. Once again, they had picked an area with rolling hills, grasslands, agricultural fields and waterways. There were plenty of scraggly, invasive Russian olives and old fence posts for them to perch upon.

Although occasionally, one or two could still be found in the original fields and roosting area, the bulk of the colony had moved deeper into the site, to an area without roadways and vehicular traffic. They had moved to an area with less constant interference from people.

I realized then that for these state-endangered owls, adaptability was a hallmark of their existence. From the frost-kissed grasslands of winter to the sun-drenched expanses of summer, they embraced change with an elegance that mirrored the fluidity of life. In their nomadic wanderings, I found inspiration to navigate the unpredictable currents of my own journey, learning to welcome change as a harbinger of growth.

Just a few years ago, they once again moved the colony, and as before, it was close to a roadway and a large amount of traffic. Again, birders and photographers descended. I knew that after seeing the crowds and the behaviors displayed by some visitors, the owls would not be in that same spot come next winter. Indeed, it would turn out to be a replay of 2013. Once again, I spent nearly the entire 2014/15 season just trying to find where they had moved.

Through my camera lens, I witnessed the owls’ feeding patterns and learned to predict when they would be soaring high or flying low close to the ground. On the bitter cold and wintriest days, they soared less and flew from perch to perch to scan around them for food, conserving energy.

I watched them battle mid-flight with each other over a tiny mouse or vole. I learned that although they shared the same fields with the northern harriers, there were often disagreements and fights between the two species and that the owls would sometimes gang up on a harrier. It was as if they would terrorize the harrier together until it gave up and left the area. In these mid-air skirmishes, I discovered the essence of working as a team, sacrifice and the relentless pursuit of ensuring survival.

Despite their small bullet-shaped bodies, short-eared owls have a large wingspan and a distinctive flight pattern. Their wings have been compared to looking like moth or butterfly wings, but I always thought they looked a bit like big floppy bloodhound ears flying in the breeze.

A tan, brown, and white owl perches on  the top of a bush in winter. A snowy field is in the background.
Photo by Gretchen Steele.

The owls’ silent flights, a testament to their extraordinary hunting prowess, echoed the importance of embracing the quiet moments in life. In a world clamoring for attention, the owls taught me that wisdom often resides in stillness. Their nocturnal existence unveiled the beauty hidden within the shadows, urging me to appreciate the mysteries that linger beyond the reach of daylight.

As the years unfolded, the colony of short-eared owls became more than subjects of my lens; they became silent mentors, imparting invaluable lessons. Like the ever-changing seasons, they reminded me that life is a cyclical journey where each moment is a fleeting masterpiece. Through the lens of my love affair with the owls, I learned the art of patience, the strength of familial bonds, the grace of adaptability and the beauty inherent in the hushed whispers of the night.

In the quiet corners of the grasslands, where the owls gaze upon the world, I found a subject for my lens and a lifelong companion. My love affair with the owls became a journey of self-discovery, a voyage into the heart of nature, and an odyssey of lessons that continue to unfold each passing season.

It was with great joy that I discovered this year they had returned to the original fields and grasslands where I first found them. Nomads that they can be, it was like a homecoming. The little sunset soarers were back where our story began, in a sense mirroring the rhythm of life itself.

Once again, I could settle into my favorite spot in the grasslands each evening and smile as my owl friends flew by, calling, blinking and giving me a winter “welcome home.”

Gretchen Steele hails from Coulterville, Illinois. Steele is a freelance outdoor communicator. Her award-winning work appears as a regular columnist and contributing feature writer for Heartland Outdoors, Illinois Outdoor News and several Illinois newspapers. She enjoys spending her time afield as a volunteer for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Delta Waterfowl Foundation, Retrievers Unlimited and the Illinois Federation of Outdoor Resources. She is the President of Missouri Outdoor Communicators and a former board member of Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers.

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