BLOOMINGTON - Central Illinois bird watchers are in rapture over raptors. The winter of 2005-2006 has been a peak year for unusual and rare birds of prey to pay a visit to the region, experts say. Recent sightings include snowy owls like Harry Potter's sidekick and rough-legged hawks. Both normally live far north on the Arctic tundra. Other visitors have included peregrine falcons and eagles. Credit the surprise guests to a cold December and lack of food in their home territories.
"It's very exciting," said Angelo Capparella, an avian biologist at Illinois State University and member of John Wesley Powell chapter of the Audubon Society,
Capparella saw his first-ever snowy owls over the weekend in Gridley Township in northern McLean County. At least two of the birds have been confirmed, and there's possibly a third somewhere between Hudson and Normal, said Les Allen, a bird watcher and field trip guide with JPW Audubon based in Bloomington. The snowy owls' visit is one of just a few sightings in the area in the past 40 years when accurate record-keeping began, Capparella said.
"People will be coming from all over," Capparella said.
Allen, who handles the Audubon chapter's Web site, was notified of the snowy owls via e-mail from a Gridley couple whose relatives live in the country and who saw the owls about three weeks ago. Allen, who had seen the owls twice before three years ago in LaSalle County and once in Minnesota, found the birds - one adult and one juvenile - and later led others to them. On Sunday, about 15 people went on a field trip. Like Capparella, about half were seeing them for the first time.
Allen said others have been spotted recently in LaSalle County south of LaSalle Lake, a warm-water lake north of Streator and used to cool the power plant.
Meanwhile, two Peregrine falcons were seen soaring over ISU on Monday, Capparella added.
The birds love to roost on high buildings like Watterson Towers. Though their numbers were once low, reintroduction programs in major cities have helped them to rebound, Harper said.
Allen said Peregrine falcons also have been recently seen in Champaign and Peoria.
Capparella said the presence of the snowy owls signals a spontaneous migration from their tundra homes south in search of food. Given Harper, a raptor expert at Illinois Wesleyan University, said rodents the birds eat have gone through cyclical populations swings. When rodent numbers are down, the birds must travel to hunt.
Unfamiliar with hunting away from the tundra, the owls may not survive, said Harper and Capparella who are launching a joint study of raptor numbers in Central Illinois.
Scientists are unsure if snowy owls should be considered endangered. Their normal range is in such a remote area that accurate surveys are impossible. Rough-legged hawks are less rare, Harper said.
Audubon members taking part in the annual Christmas Bird Count in December recorded two Bald eagles at Evergreen Lake. A caller to The Pantagraph reported one at Lake Bloomington in the past two weeks. Officials announced this week they are considering delisting the birds, once seriously endangered by DDT use, because their numbers have rebounded. Still, seeing eagles in McLean County is unusual except during migration periods when they fly through the area, Harper said.