A History Lesson on Grafton, Illinois
Founded by James Mason unofficially in 1832 but on the records as of 1836, Grafton is the oldest city in Jersey County, Illinois, United States. It is located near the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers.
In its heyday, the population peaked at approximately 10,000 residents in the 1850’s, due in part to the employment boom in the local stone quarries, commercial fishing and boat building.
Today Grafton is known for its Winter Bald Eagle Watching area along the banks of the mighty Mississippi. Main Street is lined with restaurants, speciality shops, wineries and wine shops, and other attractions, making Grafton a popular stopping place for riders on the Sam Vadalabene Bike Trail or visitors in search of fall color along the bluffs on the “Great River Road.” It is definitely a must see during the fall season. If you are planning an extended stay, you can find lodging at area hotels, Pere Marquette State Park’s Lodge, or in a variety of Bed and Breakfast establishments that dot the landscape along the Great River Road.
“For the Trill of It”
Sometime in late Winter 2015/early Spring 2016, I met up with Dawn and Michael, two friends/local photographers, for some shooting at the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary. On a hunch we drove up to the Grafton Visitor Center, hoping to spot the resident Eastern Screech Owl (ESO). Dawn mentioned that the ESO had all but totally eluded her in previous years. With the aid of binoculars, we scoured a few trees along the parking lot and even the trees on the road which leads to the Visitor Center. We came up empty on that trip. I promised to keep my ears to the ground should news surface of any sightings of this little guy or gal.
Eastern Screech Owl Biology
The Eastern Screech Owl is a small nocturnal owl of the woodlands with an average length of about 9 inches; however, the male of the species is roughly an inch shorter. The female has an average wingspan of 22 inches versus the males at 21 inches. The normal weight of the female is 7.3 ounces with the male at almost 7 ounces.
There are two color morphs of the Eastern Screech Owl (ESO), a grey phase and a rufous (reddish-brown) phase. It can be difficult to distinguish the Eastern from the Western species but the color of the bill will decide. ESOs have grey-green bills while Western Screech Owls have grey to black bills. Their “call’ can also separate the two species. Both males and females sing. Their most common sounds are an even-pitched trill, often called a “bounce song” or tremolo; and a shrill, descending whinny. The tremolo is used by pairs or families to keep in touch and is 3–6 seconds long. The whiny is 0.5–2 seconds long and is used to defend territories. These two songs may be given one after the other. Coupled pairs may sing to each other antiphonally, both day and night. The call of the Eastern male includes a long trill or a whiny during courtship while the females may hoot or bark while defending the nest.
Click below to listen to a sample of the calls:
The Owl will begin hunting shortly after dusk and continue until dawn; however, it may accomplish most of this chore during the first four hours of darkness. The Screech Owl pursues a large variety of prey which can include small mammals, fish, insects and both small songbirds and some of the larger upland species to include the Ruffed Grouse. It will also prey upon small snakes and soft-shelled turtles.
Breeding season will normally begin around mid-April but can start as early as mid-March and continue into May depending on the geographical location and temperatures. They nest almost exclusively in enlarged natural tree cavities but they will also use old cavities left by the Pileated Woodpecker and Northern Flicker. They will also readily use owl and Wood duck boxes. The female will normally lay between 2 and 8 eggs. The incubation period is normally 26 days followed by 31 days with the young fledgeling.
The adult owls will remain in their home territory year-round whereas the young will disperse in the fall. An interesting fact about Screech Owls is that most pairs are monogamous and remain together for life. Some males, however, will mate with two different females. The second female may evict the first female, lay her own eggs in the nest, and incubate both clutches.
The ESO will inhabit open areas mixed with woodlands, parks, wooded suburban locations, mature orchards and wooded areas along streams and wetlands. They will avoid dense forest due to the Great Horned Owl. The Eastern Screech is widespread and locally common throughout the central to the eastern United States.
(Eastern Screech Owl Biology referenced sources: All About Birds, Nat Geo and Audubon Society)
Winter in the Mid-West
As beautiful as winter is for, photography the weather in the Midwest can be extremely burdensome for you and your gear. Certain precautions are required that no other season demands. When you’re cold and wet, a nice warm blanket or cozy fireplace sounds way more appealing than being in the wintry and rainy weather. You have to be patient with your process when it comes to photography.
An appropriate quote which comes to mind is that of Lao Tzu ~ “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”
While I initially thought, “What better place can I be but in my warm bed?”, the lure of seeing a new owl species quickly extinguished thoughts of sleeping in. I told a friend, Lisa, who is fascinated by owls, and she joined me on the trip. My first attempt to see the owl was on a heavily overcast, rainy and cold Sunday morning. The view along the Great River Road was bleak. The Ameren UE power plant was about the only thing happening that day.
The first day seeing the owl did not last too long. The cold, rain and wind made for uncomfortable viewing, and the owl had the right idea, as he huddled into his little cavity and stayed put. I decided a second trip would be in store in the future, hopefully involving warmer temps, after all, Winter is well on its way to the Mid-West. Guess I will see the owl another day!
The second trip to see the owl started off at the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary. It was another cold day, but no rain and at least this time there were a few slivers of sunlight. After not having much luck with the waterfowl that morning, Bill and I decided to head on over to Grafton. While in route, I received a text from Lonnie saying she and Ken were both looking for the owl earlier that morning without luck. I encouraged her and Ken to head back up to Grafton with Bill and I, hoping maybe this time we would get lucky.
We spotted our friend as soon as we pulled up to the location, napping peacefully in the cavity of a tree. We spent about 30 minutes or so photographing the owl, shooting from different angles, and trying our best to maximize the available light. While we waited for the clouds to reveal the sun, we also worked on shooting technique and exchanged a few gear related tips and tricks. All in all, it was a successful day getting to see the owl and connecting with fellow photographers.