Owl Watch Photography Tours at Midewin: Here's What to Look For

“Owl Watch” is on now at Midewin, where, in recent years, short-eared owls, Northern harriers and more native grassland birds of prey have been seen in colder months in the area where bison graze.Twenty-seven bison – four bulls and 24 cows – were introduced at Midewin as a conservation experiment in 2015. USDA Forest Service volunteers, partners, and staff are monitoring to see if the grazing, wallowing and other natural tendencies of the bison is helping to increase and improve habitat for grassland birds and other native Illinois prairie species.

A short-eared owl soaring through the sky.
 A short-eared owl flies over the Group 63 Trail at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. The trail is located near the Iron Bridge Trailhead. Photo by Mark Korosa.

The bison are helping short-eared owls and other grassland birds at Midewin in a variety of ways. They are helping to maintain more varied heights and diversity of grasses and forbs. They also help by preventing shrub encroachment and creating disturbed patches for foraging owls to catch prey. This is particularly important for short-eared owls, which are one of the only species of ground-nesting owls in North America. What’s more, short-eared owls eat only meat: voles, mice, etc., which are drawn to where the bison graze.

Short-eared owls and other native birds of prey are not always visible, but they have been seen most frequently along the Group 63 Bunker Trail on the East side of Highway 53.

“The best time to look for owls at Midewin  is in the late afternoons, just before dusk, during the colder months of the year,” said Will County Audubon Society Vice President Greg Dubois.  

Greg will guide two “Owl Watch” photography tours at Midewin in December, sharing his knowledge of owls and photography. Both tours will meet at the Iron Bridge Trailhead (directions and informationhttps://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/midewin/recarea/?recid=57100) at 3 p.m.

  1. Saturday, December 3: U.S. Military veterans and family members: This tour is tailored to connect U.S. Military veterans and family members with nature through Brushwood Center's “At Ease” Nature Platoon at Midewin.   
  2. Saturday, December 10: General Public: This tour is open to anyone who loves nature and photography and wants to connect with other great outdoors enthusiasts.

To register to participate in an “Owl Watch” Photography Tour at Midewin, please call 815-423-6370 or email sm.fs.Midewin_RSVP@usda.gov.

Barred owl resting on a branch.
A barred owl rests in the trees at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Photo by Monika Bobek.

Whether you participate in an “Owl Watch” tour or look for owls on your own, here are some key characteristics to help identify a short-eared owl: 

  • Wingspan = 35 to 40 inches
  • Length = 15 inches
  • Heavily streaked wings and body, overall; white to tan-colored underwings and body with dark striping, and dark colored bars on their wings;
  • Round, cream-colored facial disc with dark eye patches; yellow eyes.