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Recent entries


Through the Lens

Short Eared Owls - Everywhere you look!

Tue, December 21, 2010

Short Eared Owl Hotspot

Note the two small tufts of feathers atop the owls head - it’s these tufts that are responsible for the name “Short Eared Owl”

Bird watchers, wildlife enthusiasts, and outdoor photographers throughout the state often travel to Peabody Fish and River King Wildlife Area in New Athens in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the endangered Short Eared Owl. While the occasional sighting is possible at Peabody a new short eared owl hotspot in Southern Illinois has appeared.  A recent visit to the World Shooting and Recreational Complex (WSRC ) in Sparta revealed large numbers of the small endangered ground nesting owl feeding and flying throughout the complex.

Note the dark bands or wrist straps on the underside of the short eared owls wings which can be used as a key when identifying the owl in flight.

While “making my rounds” Saturday afternoon I drifted through the World Shooting and Recreational Complex. The complex offers good wildlife viewing and photography opportunities this time of year. The skies above the grasslands there seemed to be almost littered with multiple species of birds of prey as well as groups of waterfowl coming in to feed or look for the few bodies of open water. Strangely enough I began to notice the owls, and lots of them. It seemed as if every little tree and sign post had an owl perched upon it. They were up and down.. gliding.. low over the grasslands to suddenly drop and snag a quick snack, they could be found perched on what seemed like every small tree and signpost.

I began snapping away and also wondering what in the world was up with these owls feeding in the afternoon, and so many of them. I’m almost ashamed to admit this, having looked at them repeatedly through the lens, but I just couldn’t understand this strange barred owl behavior. The answer was revealed when I got home and began processing the images. The owls were NOT smallish barred owls but rather the ever elusive, often sought after, endangered short eared owl.

The distinctive yellow eyes,black beak , and black “wrist strap” on the underside of the wings gave them away. I excitedly called Chris Hespin at the WSRC to ask how and why and just marvel at the sheer numbers of these endangered birds that were creating such a great show throughout the complex. Hespin told me that it was primarily due to the habitat found at the shooting complex and the large grasslands there. “We have the right habitat, the right food sources. Primarily the types of grassland that we have combined with bodies of water here make it a prime spot for them. We are excited to have them visiting us here.”

Good numbers of the endangered owl can currently be spotted at the World Shooting and Recreational Complex with ease. Bird watchers and wildlife enthusiasts taking a leisurely drive through the complex grounds can be treated to what appear to be unusually high numbers of the small yellow eyed raptor perched in trees and on sign posts and actively feeding throughout the DNR managed site.

In addition to the endangered short eared owls, visitors are treated to host of other wildlife viewing and photography opportunities at the complex where large numbers of birds of prey can found utilizing the grasslands as well as deer, turkey, migrating waterfowl and host of small game and mammals.
It was noted that one of the owls has seemingly taken up the signs at the entrance to the Shooting complex as a favorite roosting place, almost as if the owl has decided to serve as an official welcoming committee for winter visitors and bird watchers at the complex.

The short eared owl who can usually be found perched on the Welcome to Sparta sign at the WSRC

The best times for viewing the short eared owls hunting , as they glide low over the fields and grass lands are early mornings and late afternoon.

For more information about the short eared owls and wildlife viewing opportunities at the World Shooting and Recreational Complex or for directions phone 618-295-2700 or visit the WSRC’s   web site at


A Special Solstice

Fri, December 17, 2010

Solstice is always special at our house, Most of our holiday celebrations center around Solstice versus Christmas. We host annual an Solstice / Daylight’s Coming party in honor of the winter solstice when the days begin to get longer and the deep darkness of winter starts to recede. Our tree is decorated with white lights, and items from out warmer season forays into the woods. feathers, bones, shells, birds nests, small bundles of dried wildflowers and berries, a few cattails.

This year’s Solstice will be even more special as we will be treated to a lunar eclipse. On Dec. 21st, the first day of northern winter,  the full Moon will pass almost dead-center through Earth’s shadow. For just a little over an hour an reddish to amber glow will emanate from the moon. In areas with snow covering the ground stargazers and moon watchers will be treated to a lovely landscape bathed in a delicate roseate glow,

Scientists tell us that the last time a full lunar eclipse coincided with the winter solstice was in AD 1554, making this truly historic event and one that could even warrant waking up the children in your household to witness.

The eclipse begins on Tuesday morning, Dec. 21st, at 12:33 am CST At that time, Earth’s shadow will appear as a dark-red “bite” at the edge of the lunar disk. It takes roughly an hour for the “bite” to expand and encompass the entire Moon. Totality (when the entire moon is covered) commences at 01:41 am CST and lasts for 72 minutes.

The best and most spectacular viewing should occur about 02:17 am CST . That’s when the moon will be in deepest shadow, and it is anticipated that the moon will be showing off the deepest and most jeweled tones of red and amber.

Why the red tones you ask? According to NASA;

If you were to stand on the moon’s surface looking up at the sky, you would see Earth hanging above, nightside down, and completely hiding the sun behind it.

Rather than being completely dark, the Earth’s rim would appear as if it were on fire. Around its circumference, you would be seeing every sunrise and every sunset in the world at the same time.

This surrounding light will actually beam right into Earth’s shadow, giving it a rusty glow.

From the Earth, the moon would appear as a giant red orb because the only sunlight visible is refracted through the Earth’s atmosphere.

I encourage everyone to bundle up, and slip out into the wee hours of the morning and treat yourself to this rare, wondrous site. Celebrate Solstice while you are out there - after all ,  aren’t we all looking forward to longer days and more daylight time to spend outdoors?



Whiteouts and Waterfowl

Wed, December 15, 2010

Although the weather was frightful, with whiteout driving conditions, dangerously cold temps and wind chills,plus blowing, drifting snow;  none of that impacted the enthusiasm of the determined youth hunters and celebrities attending the Annual DownRiver Outdoors Celebrity Youth Waterfowl Hunt December 12th and 13th.

Event organizer Scott Huschle

As sunrise Sunday revealed the extent of the weather issues the event organizer Scott Huschle began making phone calls checking with sponsors, parents, and celebrities. All agreed – they could not disappoint the 10 young hunters who had won spots in a blind with outdoor and sports celebrities.  “ Go slow and be careful G “ Scott cautioned me.  “If you’re late no one will mind. We just want everyone to get here safe.”  And so my journey began Sunday morning.  I like to think I’m intrepid soul, but I have to admit after the first 50 or so miles creeping along in almost constant whiteout conditions I had to wonder if I was committed, or needed to be committed.

I fretted about the brutal cold and the young hunters that were traveling from throughout the state to hunt with at Keck’s Marsh with some of the best outdoor celebrities around.  I wondered if it was going to be safe for the kids. I sought ideas from other “mother hen” waterfowling women during my frequent stops to clear my windshield and wipers.  I fretted a little more.

I kept my nerves at bay while I was driving by trying to think of indoor activities and programs we could present to the young hunters if the dangerous cold prevented them from heading out to hunt Monday morning.

Seems I wasn’t the only one.  “Even if Monday’s brutal cold kept us from going out to hunt, I was hurriedly throwing together some inside programs and activities that we could do with the youngsters” said IDNR Director Marc Miller.  “If those young folks and their parents were willing to brave the elements, and difficult travel conditions, I was too.”

I think everyone could agree agreed that the driving conditions ranged from horrible to brutal, each celebrity and sponsor echoed the importance of following through on a commitment and making sure the youngsters were not disappointed.

Celebrity hunter Alli Armstrong with her younger sister Adriana

At the dinner and program held Sunday evening at the hosting hunt club, Keck’s Marsh in Vandalia, Illinois, the celebrity speakers all incorporated the weather conditions and difficult travel into lessons for the youth about the importance of honoring commitments. The speakers shifted the focus of their talks with the youngsters to focus on the various aspects of hunting that do not include killing, as given the weather it was anticipated that there would be few ducks and geese moving and few opportunities for the youngsters to shoot.

Celebrity hunter Lauren Thomas of Carlyle, a host on Scent Blocker Most Wanted TV, who is also a teacher, spoke with the youngsters about the importance of education and working hard at school. She explained to the young listeners about classes that can help lead to careers in the outdoors, and how doing well in a variety of subjects can help to enhance their time in the outdoors and hunting. 

“Hunting is about much more than killing something” Five time World Goose Calling Champion Tim Grounds explained to the young folks, “it’s about conservation, learning about the outdoors, enjoying the company of other hunters.  The killing is only a small part of the whole experience.”  Grounds shared stories from his early days hunting,  and gave the youngsters great lessons about calling and safe gun use in and out of the blind.  “Remember,” he cautioned, “It’s just a bird.. and no duck or goose or any game is worth an injury or possibly killing someone.”

Each celebrity who spoke during the Sunday evening program in turn emphasized the importance of safety, ethics, and following all game laws. The speakers focused on the importance of conservation efforts to insure that hunting opportunities and wildlife remain available throughout the youngsters’ lifetimes. 

Outdoor journalist Curt Hicken shared with the raptly listening youngsters the importance of having an adult mentor, and how in years to come the lessons learned from those adults who take the time to go out of doors with them will build a strong foundation for the young hunters to someday be adult mentors themselves.

Director Miller introduced the group to the writings of Aldo Leopold,  often considered the father of modern conservation efforts,  telling the young hunters “When you are faced with a hard decision in the outdoors, stop and ask yourself,  What would Aldo do? “ 

Thanks to the generosity of sponsors such as Curt Smith’s Sporting Goods, Cabela’s , Avery Outdoors, DownRiver Outdoors, and Winchester the youth were suitably outfitted in warm waterfowl clothing, and raring to go before dawn Monday morning.  Event organizers and the staff of Keck’s Marsh decided that although the youngsters were anxious to get to the blinds before dawn it was much safer to hold the group indoors for a few extra cups of hot cocoa and an extra plateful of hot breakfast. Once the sun rose and the temps also began to rise, the youngsters were racing out the door, many to experience waterfowl hunting for the first time.

Sadly, as was expected the birds weren’t flying, and the water was frozen over, locked up tight. But the intrepid youngsters forged ahead exploring the superb habitat that Keck’s Marsh supports, and gaining insight into the aspects of hunting that enjoyable whether or not a single shot is ever fired.

The lack of birds didn’t dampen the spirits of the youngsters one bit. Upon returning to the lodge for a warm lunch, celebrity hunter John Mabry, former Cardinals ball player grinned, “Those kids had a blast… no ducks, but oh my – we talked about everything under the sun, they played on the snow and ice, practiced their duck calling, and learned that even if you never fire a shot, there’s lots of things about hunting to enjoy.”

That sentiment was echoed by each group as they return to lodge.  The youngsters excitedly chattered about everything related to waterfowl, conservation, and all agreed that yes, it was cold but it was so much fun! The adults marveled at the hardiness of the young hunters and how they seemed to actually tolerate the bitter cold far better than most of the adults.

Following a hot hearty lunch and more photos, story telling and sharing,  at the lodge, the children headed home, still chattering away about how to call in birds, what makes good waterfowl habitat, and a better understanding of all aspects of hunting in general.

I think it’s safe to say a few new waterfowlers were born this weekend thanks to all the sponsors, mentors, celebrities and others who worked so hard to give those youngsters a look into the world of waterfowl hunting.