Updated: Jan 11
Those who write the Great Plains off as a “flyover region”—and I was once one of them—have never stood on an early spring prairie among bison and displaying prairie chickens, or on a cold, winter prairie at sunset. The region is massive, spanning from southwestern Canada to the Texas coast, and at least 10 degrees of longitude east to west. Some native habitat remains across the plains, albeit cut to pieces by barbed wire, roads, and towns. It’s no longer the sea of grass described by those at the height of western movement. In little more than 200 years of settlement, less than 1% of North American prairies remain. These productive ecosystems covered a massive portion of the continent. It’s incredible and scary what humans can do.
Yet, the patches that persist—many of them quite vast—are a positive reminder of what existed before this fertile land was conquered for agriculture and grazing. It’s this reminder that I find myself drawn to.
People often forget prairies when considering the world’s biodiversity; it can be easy for an undiscerning eye to see rolling hills of grass and think them boring. Prairies aren’t a tropical forest after all, but they don’t lack diversity and are highly productive. From the near incalculable number of grasses and forbs (wildflower-y plants) that bedazzle a spring-damp landscape, to the abundance of insects, herps, mammals and, of course, birds. Many species require prairies for survival.
Grasses and forbs produce seeds and seeds support primary consumers like small birds and rodents. Add in a variety of prey sizes for flavor, and you have a recipe for large congregations of predators, raptors chief among them.
In fact, more than 30 species of aerial predators depend upon North American prairie ecosystems during all or part of the year—most of them diurnal: a variety of hawks and falcons—some of them nocturnal: elusive owls.
By day, diurnal raptors dominate prairie skies. Famously, the central Great Plains are a wintering holy land for them; Red-tailed Hawks being one of the most well-known . If you thought Red-tailed Hawks were just that, think again. Across their range, there are somewhere around 12 subspecies, many of which look distinctly different. Though they all breed in specific regions of the continent, the central plains boast a healthy, mixed wintering population. On a good day, you might expect to see no fewer than five subspecies and even more color morphs among them. One of my favorite avian juxtapositions is that between the chocolate-brown “Harlan’s” hawk, hailing from Alaska and the Yukon Territory, and the frosty “Krider’s” hawk, of the northern Great Plains.
As much as I love subspecies diversity, I’ll leave that of the ubiquitous Red-tailed alone for now. Books have been written on lesser subjects.
Rivaling Red-taileds for the most abundant diurnal raptor on a prairie (and often winning) are Northern Harriers. These long-winged predators have an elegant, slender build that’s perfect for gliding quickly across the grasses in an often windy landscape.
Northern Harriers are unique among many of their diurnal relatives, relying more heavily on sound than sight to locate prey. A method evidenced by an owl-like facial disk that facilitates hearing. Harriers are seemingly inexhaustible, in virtually constant flight until a prey item is captured; then it’s off into the grass for a meal. It’s their habit of gliding rather than flapping that keeps them aloft for so long without tiring.
Unlike many raptors, harriers are sexually dimorphic by plumage color. Adult males are ghostly in appearance, largely gray and white with black wingtips. A prominent color scheme against yellowed winter grass.
Females and first year males are tones of brown, rufous, and gold—the former has a light breast speckled with brown, the latter a rich rufous breast. More functional in color, but not less halting than gray males. Just different. From a distance, the white rump is a key identifying feature of harriers, regardless of sex or age. So too is the rocking behavior while gliding across a windy prairie.
On a winter day, harriers spread out across the landscape. Then, near sunset, they come from far and wide to meet back at a communal roosting area—sometimes by the dozens. Harriers finish their day’s work as the sun sets and, one by one, disappear into the grass.
But all is not quiet. As the harriers vanish elegantly into the sea, they’re replaced by Short-eared Owls. It’s like watching a magic trick…one disappears, the other materializes in its place.
That’s the usual story anyway: harriers until sunset, owls thereafter. Sometimes, though, conditions align—maybe more so on cold, cloudy days—and owls may appear early. In several pilgrimages to winter Short-eared Owls roosts, I’ve observed this only once and it was a dream realized.
Cloudy Midwestern days near the Winter Solstice mean calling it an early night. In the last two hours of daylight, it was already getting dark as I wandered through a late-afternoon oak barren. These small plots of woods are not uncommon in prairie country, providing a natural shelter for many things.
Not deep into the trees, I spotted a roosting Barred Owl. I think it was hoping its status as a camouflaged tree lump would fool me. It didn’t. Afterwards, I was inspired to check out an adjacent barn. Old and wooden, it leaned dangerously towards the earth. A nest box and whitewash (the nice phrase for owl s***) gave the indication of an occasional nocturnal resident, but no one seemed to be home.
Looking through the trees to grassland beyond, I saw a harrier cruising by. I knew it was time to get out there. Leaving behind the cautious, roosting Barred Owl and the usual false promise of a Barn Owl, I emerged.
Barely out of the car in a large tract of prairie, I spotted the bat-like flight of a Short-eared Owl. It flapped for a few seconds and cruised straight at me. 3:20 pm. Still nearly two hours until sunset.
Over the next half hour I watched, mouth agape, as this owl hunted the surrounding prairie. It cared nothing about the photographer. Several times, it passed close enough to feel a whisper from wings designed to be silent. As it glided low, a catlike shriek came from the grass. Another owl was awake and ready to emerge. By 3:45 pm, this second one was up and hunting too.
These two hunted alone, one on either side of a narrow gravel road. Another twenty minutes and they were joined by five others. 4:05 pm. Still nearly an hour until sunset. I found myself not knowing which way to turn as owls whirled all around. At first, they’d fly way out into the grass—maybe almost ½ mile—then come steaming back.
Like harriers, Short-eared Owls have long, slender wings that allow them to easily glide across the grass. This is quite unlike many of their heavier-winged relatives. Still bulky in body, the owls spend a fair bit of time awkwardly flapping to achieve a productive glide.
Unlike the harriers whose gliding seemed endless (and who were still active, by the way), the owls perched often on short bushes and posts. From these vantage points, they kept careful watch on their companions, frequently giving shrieks and barks that seemed to warn others not to come too close. Though they may roost together, these fierce predators compete for resources after all.
In flight, the owls were constantly looking around: a sideways look at companions, an intense downward stare at prey. Listening. Watching. Primed and ready, a flat glide would turn into a steep bank; then, long wings tensed like a bow, an owl would drop into the grass. Down for no more than a moment and up it would come, deep flaps helping it aloft, talons dangling either empty or full. Though powerful hunters, I was made aware of the hard work that goes into catching even one prey item. In nearly two hours of watching dozens of dives into the grass, I saw one success. Based on the number of raptors around and constant scratching in grass nearby, there was no shortage of prey…probably rodents. It’s just tough work.
Even when prey was secured, it wasn’t safe. One successful owl came up with a nice fat rat and was immediately pursued by a jealous harrier. Both disappeared into the grass and both soon came out empty-taloned. Only harrier and owl know what happened to their quarry, but it surely escaped during the brief altercation.
As sunset neared, the sun found a gap in the blanket of clouds that had covered the sky for several days. It illuminated the owls’ world. At this point, most had been hunting for nearly two hours and several went to winter-bare trees and bushes for a break. One individual was cranky as ever, making a racket of chilling shrieks for anything that would listen.
Some of the owls continued to hunt, bathed in the golden light of a setting sun.
As the sun sank further, business picked up once more. Ever aware of their surroundings, two of the owls engaged in a quick tussle, whirling close to each other and breaking off. Eventually, the "frenemies" moved to opposite ends of my field of view…where there were yet more owls!
I hated to leave such a splendid scene, but once it became tough to see and cold enough to crack fingers, I counted my blessings and reluctantly left. Driving out through several miles of high-quality prairie, I tallied owls all the way. In total, at least 13 Short-eared Owls called this sacred patch of Kansas prairie home.