Bird watchers are out these days looking for visitors from the Arctic and other far northern territories that are wintering in central Illinois. Those birds include snow buntings, Lapland longspurs and the horned lark. No winter bird is more sought after than the snowy owl, made famous by Hedwig, Harry Potter's trusty messenger bird. In another of our occasional series on Unknown Illinois,
I accompanied veteran bird watchers Tim Lindenbaum and Mike Ingram in search of this elusive creature.
"They're so unexpected," Ingram said. "It doesn't seem like something you'd see in Illinois. I grew up watching Wild Kingdom and those nature series and it was something I'd see on those programs, not in Illinois, yet here they are."
"It's always a real thrill," Lindenbaum says. "It's one of the few birds even non-birders are interested to come out and see and learn about. They've got a lot of recognition through the Harry Potter movies, so kids also enjoy seeing them."
The day we went out together, a snowy owl had been spotted by other bird watchers near Gridley. But actually finding the white-plumed bird proved more difficult than expected, as I quickly learned.
Snowy owls are used to living on the Arctic tundra and feel comfortable in the low, flat landscape of central Illinois. In addition to the distinctive white plumage of the males, snowy owls have curious yellow eyes, exceptional hearing, keen eyesight and a healthy appetite. They consume about 1,600 lemmings per year. They will probably remain in central Illinois for a short time more before returning to the Arctic region.