PINCKNEYVILLE, Ill. — Pyramid State Park, south and west of Pinckneyville, is home to a flock of about 40 short-eared owls.
Although an Illinois Endangered Species, the short-eared owl is thriving in the grasslands of the reclaimed strip mines at Pyramid. The owls nest in Canada and Alaska, but call Pyramid home from November to about mid-February.
The birds are most visible when they are feeding in the early mornings and late afternoons. The owls soar a few feet above the ground, scouring the countryside for mice and voles.
The short-eared owl is medium-sized, about 14 to 17 inches tall. If not soaring above the ground, they can frequently be seen sitting on fence posts, signs or low bushes.
They are quite active near Goldeneye Lake in Pyramid State Park.
As her car bumped down the rutted back roads of Pyramid State Park, Gretchen Steele scanned the fields near Goldeneye Lake, searching for short-eared owls.
Seeing no signs of the ground-dwelling birds, Steele, a Coulterville resident, checked the time. It was shortly after 3 p.m. A regular visitor to Pyramid State Park, Steele said the birds usually appear around 4 p.m.
With about 45 minutes to kill, Steele headed back toward Super Lake to view the thousands of snow geese calling Pyramid home.
It didn’t take long to spot the owls on the return trip to Goldeneye. Several of the owls were perched on fence posts as Steele approached.
“For me they seem to be most active in that hour or two before dark than they are in the morning,” Steele said. “I may see them out occasionally in the mornings, but not so much.”
An outdoor writer/photographer, Steele accidentally stumbled onto the Pyramid owls.
“I just found them out here (when I was) running the dogs,” she said. “I suspected they would be here because this is strip mine ground and this is the habitat they like. I brought the dog out to run late one afternoon. I saw one on the first post, then the second and it happened to be the same day there was a huge push of snows and migratory ducks. It was just dumb luck. I stumbled onto them.”
According to Illinois Raptor Center, short-eared owls were once the most numerous of the owl species. Now, they are on the state endangered list.
The reclaimed strip mine land at Pyramid State Park seems to suit them well.
“Part of why they are endangered here is loss of habitat,” Steele said. “Everybody ripped out fence rows, really heavy agricultural practices, where you don’t end up with open fields, open grasslands like this any more. That was the problem with them here and losing the nesting pairs in Illinois. I guess you could say this is a reclamation success story.
“They like the rolling grasslands. The reclaimed strip mine land is perfect habitat for them. They don’t get up high in the trees. They stay really, really low. They eat the mice and voles. They aren’t gobbling up quail or pheasants. You can tell by their size they aren’t equipped for that. Their main diet is mice and voles.”
After appearing almost precisely at 4 p.m., the owls spent the next 90 minutes soaring a few feet above the ground, searching for prey. Frequently the owls would battle northern harriers, working the same field for dinner.
“In the evenings they’ll sit up on a fence post, a little tree, if you watch them close, the minute they mark on their prey they’re up,” Steele said. “They glide and soar, they’re often really close to the ground too.”
The short-eared owl typically nests in Canada and Alaska.
“It seems like they show up about the beginning, or mid-November and then they’ll stay through the end of February,” Steele said. “I’ve not seen them in the warmer months. I don’t know that there aren’t nesting ones here, but I’ve not seen them. It’s just all at once; one day they’ll be gone.”