Short-eared owls, northern harriers and more delighting now with late-afternoon aerial feeding dives and competitions at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

Contact(s): Veronica Hinke

News Release: Short-eared Owls

Kestrels, Cooper’s hawks, great horned owls, barred owls and more active on the prairie 




WILMINGTON, Ill. (Dec. 1, 2020) – Think cold weather is for the birds? If you’re a bird watcher, it sure is. With annual migration and leafless trees, now is a perfect time for spotting owls, harriers, kestrels and other elusive birds overwintering at the USDA Forest Service’s Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Here are a few ideas about where to look and what to look for.   


In recent days, the fence along the pasture on the east side of the Group 63 Trail has been lined with the long lenses of dedicated bird watchers. In late afternoon hours, just before sunset, short-eared owls and northern harriers have been competing in the sky for voles on the ground.  


The east pasture is where bison graze, creating shorter grasses and the perfect feeding ground where birds can more easily spot prey. Grazing also stirs rodents, which is why coyotes follow the herd and can be heard yipping and howling way off in the distance starting at about 4 p.m. nightly. Park at the Iron Bridge Trailhead: 41°22'43.9"N 88°07'23.0"W. 


“Both northern harriers and short-eared owls are native grassland birds in Illinois, and they can possibly be seen throughout the year at Midewin NTP. However, both species are rare here during the nesting season, and the timing of the recent sightings suggests that these are winter migrant birds that are using the expansive grasslands of Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie to forage.” said Midewin NTP Restoration Team Leader Michael Redmer.  


Short-eared owls are known for being able to travel great distances, with recorded migrations as long as 1,200 miles. You can identify them by their yellow, piercing eyes and beige-colored faces.  


Northern harriers have white on their back sides and their tails are longer than the tails of short-eared owls. Like owls, they rely on hearing as well as vision to capture prey. Their disk-shaped face looks and functions much like an owl’s face, with stiff facial feathers helping to direct sound to the ears. 


There were more owls and harriers seen on Saturday, November 28 than on other days, and there were kestrels and even a Cooper’s hawk spotted flying.   


With the dark and rainy weather all day on Wednesday, November 25, owls and harriers started showing up earlier than on other days. At 2 p.m., a short-eared owl swooped past bird watchers as it headed west from the bison pasture and flew low over the Group 63 Trail.  


On Sunday, November 29 at 4:30 p.m. an obscure American kestrel flew into trees near a bunker on the west side of the Group 63 Trail, just north of the open bunker. The kestrel rested in the trees for a time before dashing through the sky in search of more food.    


On the fourth of July this year, two barred owls were spotted in a tree together at Midewin NTP. On June 14, a barred owl was photographed flying over Midewin NTP. 


Two great horned owls were spotted perched together in a tree in the South Patrol Road Prairie restoration area. If you are looking for owls in this area, there are many photo opportunities: Prairie Creek is about a 15-minute walk north Boathouse Road from here. Across from the northwest corner of the restoration area stands a white oak tree that was instrumental hundreds of years ago in establishing Wilmington Township boundary lines. Parking: 41°20'32.2"N 88°10'16.5"W.  


For more information about some of the birds that have been seen during colder months at Midewin NTP, visit:



Photo 1: Short-eared owls spotted along the Group 63 Trail near Henslow at Midewin NTP on November 23, 2020 Photo by Ken Murphy