A snowy spark

Many years ago, while running along the Lake Michigan shoreline late on an evening in January, a feathered ghost appeared on top of a flag pole. It was the first time I had ever seen a snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus) and it stopped me in my tracks. This was the spark on that frozen night that lighted my fire of curiosity about birds. This winter, snowy owls have left their Arctic homes in record numbers, causing one of the largest irruptions (sudden increase) in northern Illinois in decades.

Although it seems natural to correlate the arrival of these boreal birds with the extremely cold, snowy winter northern Illinois is having, experts say the motivator is more likely linked to food. On their Arctic breeding grounds, snowy owls feast under 24-hour sunshine. Their food of choice is lemmings, small mammals with an extremely cyclical population. Bird expert Kenn Kaufman explains in a recent Audubon magazine article, that when the lemming population explodes, like it did last summer in northern Quebec, snowy owls have great breeding success, producing large broods of up to 11 chicks. As these chicks quickly grow into juvenile birds, the competition grows for the now dwindling numbers of lemmings. Thus, the young birds get nudged further and further away to find a meal, resulting in them moving to areas that mimic their treeless tundra home, such as the Lake Michigan shoreline. Continue reading

A screech-owl’s story

Last week, many of us who work at the Lake County Forest Preserves had to say a sad goodbye. Our resident eastern screech-owl (Otus asio) passed away in the middle of the night. This male owl had spent the past seven years as an ambassador for the Lake County Forest Preserves, teaching thousands of people about the adaptations of raptors and owls. I have seen time and time again—from school children on education field trips to adults attending special events—a person’s eyes lock in and a look of amazement wash over them upon meeting this charismatic bird.

Sadly, his story is not uncommon. This particular bird was recovered in January 2004 as a juvenile. He was found by a concerned citizen in a driveway in Round Lake, Illinois with obvious head trauma and his left eye swollen and filled with blood. He was taken to Barnswallow, a raptor rehabilitation center in Wauconda, Illinois. It is suspected that this screech-owl was hit by a car, but he also had tiny sores on his talons and translucent, sheared tail feathers. These latter symptoms are signs of secondary viral infections caused by the West Nile Virus. After spending 16 months at the rehab facility, he was deemed unsuitable for release back into the wild due to the uncertainty of his eyesight in the injured eye. In the spring of 2005, he came to live in his very own mews (i.e. flight cage) near the farm area at Ryerson Woods. There he joined another resident bird, a red tailed-hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). Continue reading

“Whoo’s awake? Me, too!”

It was a cloudy morning just before dawn. As the sky lightened in the east, threatening storms became even more illuminated. I began to wonder if getting up this early for a bird count was going to be worthwhile. Still groggy with sleep, I crept out of the car and heard the distinctive “peenting” of American woodcocks (Scolopax minor) calling throughout Middlefork Savanna. The storms held off as a fellow naturalist and I headed down the trail, our eyes adjusting to the dim light of dawn. As we approached the craggy branches of an oak tree, we spotted the stocky body and characteristic “ear” tufts of a great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) hunched over its breakfast. If we heard or saw nothing else on this hike, I knew at that moment, getting up early was worth it. Continue reading