Nature Notes

by Lynn McKeown


Winter hunters from the north


Something about the white shape in the distance looked interesting. "Is that a paper sack out in that field?" I asked my companion.

"I don’t know," said Mike, rousing from a semi-somnolent state and reaching for his binoculars. "Let’s take a look."

It was late in the afternoon of a cold (and tiring) December day a few years ago, and we were driving down a Henderson County road, not far from Dam #18 on the Mississippi River. We were taking part in a Christmas Bird Count covering an area partly on the Illinois side, partly on the Iowa side of the river. As we stopped and got our binoculars focused, Mike said, "That’s a snowy owl."

In the years that I had followed the hobby/sport of bird-watching, or "birding," I had searched long and hard for a snowy owl, without success. I had followed up many reports, including some of an owl seen by many people around the city of Burlington, without getting a look at one with my own eyes. One was seen in Galesburg about 30 years ago, but I didn’t hear about it until it was long gone. (There was also a report of one in the railroad yards on the south edge of Galesburg in December, 1996, though I couldn't find it.) It seemed people were always telling me they had got a "really good look" just the day before. Now I was finally seeing the elusive bird.

Snowy owls are one of the species that come down to the Midwest in winter from their nesting grounds in the frozen northland. They are an open country bird and are sometimes seen in such places as airports or, in this case, out in a wind-swept, snow-covered farm field. They are a large bird with mostly white plumage and, in the case of younger birds, many small black spots. The owl we were seeing was apparently an older bird, with a very white appearance. As we watched, it took off and flew to a small, white farm building–a ghostly white apparition on a white building in the snowy, white landscape.

There are a number of other birds of prey that come into our part of the Midwest during the coldest time of the year, and it’s fun to get out (preferably in a warm vehicle) and look for them. Apparently more come in years when their prey is scarce further north. Other owls that appear in winter are saw-whet owl, long-eared owl and, rarely, hawk owl. The first two of these are probably more plentiful than people realize, but they usually perch in stands of pine or spruce and are difficult to see. The short-eared owl is another open country bird like the snowy owl and almost as rare in Illinois.

Up to a few years ago, short-eared owls had been appearing in small numbers on a regular basis a few miles north of Victoria in rural Knox County. It was possible to drive along the country roads there and see several within a few miles. Once my wife and I stopped our car and watched one right at the edge of the road as it appeared to be eating a small rodent.

Like snowy owls, short-eared owls don’t have ear tufts that stick out, but where snowy owls are large and mostly white, short-eared owls are medium-sized and have mostly brownish plumage. In the last few years I haven’t heard of anyone seeing either of these species in Knox County. Barred owls and screech owls, on the other hand, are common but elusive year-round birds in Knox County in wooded areas or even in town, especially screech owls.

The open areas where you might, if you are very lucky, see a snowy or short-eared owl are also home to one other owl and a number of hawks. Great horned owls are fairly common, year-round residents of Midwest farmland and small wood-lots, as are red-tailed hawks and American kestrels, a type of small falcon, also called sparrow hawk. You will sometimes see the latter perched on power or telephone lines along rural roads.

There are several hawk species that come into the Midwest from farther north in winter. Besides red-tails and kestrels, rough-legged hawks and harriers (marsh hawks) are fairly common around here in the colder months. Rough-legs are about the same size and shape as red-tails but with different, more black-and-white plumage. The plumage is variable, with a "light phase" and a somewhat less common "dark phase." Rough-legs like to hover in one spot over farm fields looking for prey. (The much smaller kestrels do the same thing.)

We also sometimes have members of another hawk group, the accipiters, in the Midwest in winter. These are, in order of increasing size, sharp-shinned hawks, Cooper’s hawks and goshawks. They are all dramatic birds with dark-blue backs and wings and menacing red eyes. They prey on other birds, and sharp-shinned hawks have been known to hang around bird feeders to catch the small birds found there. You’re not likely to see those red eyes, because these hawks are not common, and when you do see them they are usually flying somewhere in a hurry.

Goshawks, fairly large birds but rather rare in Illinois, sometimes appears on the edge of wooded areas. Big River State Forest, near Keithsburg on the Mississippi River, seems to attract them, especially a pine forest section at the north edge (though I haven’t found them there in recent years). The area is also a winter roosting area for crows, and the goshawks may prey on them, either when they were alive or after hunters had shot and left them. I also once saw a goshawk in this area who seemed to be feeding on the remains of a dead deer. (Big River State Forest is also an area where turkey vultures stay all year round–very unusual for northern Illinois–possibly feeding on winter-killed fish.)

There’s one other bird of prey–though an unusual one–that visits the Midwest only in winter. In summer, we have loggerhead shrikes, predatory songbirds that feed on insects and small rodents and can sometimes be seen perched on wires along the road. They are rather uncommon and have been considered an endangered species in Illinois. They may sometimes stay for the winter, but an even more rare bird, the similar but slightly larger northern shrike, also visits the Midwest in the colder months.

This bird has been seen in Knox County on a few occasions in recent years. In fact, this winter two have been seen in the area of Oak Run, east of Galesburg. It is a species that I have yet to add to my "life list" but I’ll be out there looking.

One last bird of prey that is a winter visitor should also be mentioned. Bald eagles come down from their north woods nesting grounds in winter and scavenge for fish where there are spots of open water on the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers. You may see eagles away from rivers–I have seen them flying high over Galesburg several times–but usually they can best be found around dam spillways, such as the one at Dam #18 on the Mississippi River west of Gladstone, Illinois.

Since the 9/11 attacks, there has been a chain link fence around the lock and dam, but it is still possible to see eagles at Dam #18 in winter, sometimes in large numbers, from the public parking lot. The public access area just south of the dam can also be a good vantage point. The eagles sometimes perch in trees on the Illinois side of the river, but usually most are on the Iowa side, so it is helpful to have binoculars or a spotting scope. (Eagles without the white head and tail are immature birds, not golden eagles.)

Best times to see eagles are often sunny, windy mornings. Then they may be very active, flying around over the river looking for the fish that provide their food. If the river is mostly ice-covered, they may also be sitting out on the ice near spots of open water. Bald eagles are large birds, with a wingspan up to seven feet, and are very impressive if you get a close look or if, on one of those sunny, windy days, they are soaring on their huge wings out over the icy river.