On a cold but clear Saturday evening, with the sun dipping towards the horizon, a group of 20 or so bird watchers assembled at Wah Sha She Prairie, about half an hour north of Joplin. They braved the cold, hoping to see the migratory short-eared owl.
Jeff Cantrell, a Missouri Department of Conservation naturalist who volunteers with the Missouri Prairie Foundation led the group. "What really captures people’s attention is they fly like a big moth. They have a real graceful flight," he said.
The short-eared owl is one of countless animals the loss of prairie in Missouri has affected - turning the bird from a resident to a seasonal visitor. The owl used to nest in the state but now owls arrive in November and leave around Valentine's day, according to Cantrell.
More than 99 percent of Missouri’s pre-settlement prairie has been lost to development over the decades, according to the Department of Conservation, taking with it precious bird habitat. Wah Sha She prairie is one of the few patches of prairie that has survived unchanged.
For birds of prey like the owl, that means good eating. "A crop field that’s been harvested, or a fescue field, it’s going to hold very little prey for them," Cantrell explained. "But here, you’ve got a wide variety. Cotton rats, white-footed mice, voles, lots and lots of food," he added.
On this given night, the northern harrier was the first to take advantage of this buffet. The harrier is another resident-turned-visitor, and it serves as kind of an opening act for the owl. With the sun pretty much gone, the harriers were out in force, but there had still been no sign of the owl.
It's been a down year, due to the rodent population in the North providing enough food for the owls. But Cantrell said, "200 years ago, you would’ve had lots of short-eared owls, you would have had I mean just abundance of everything."
Now the situation is a lot more fragile, not just for the wildlife itself, but the nature-lovers who treasure it. "You just wish more people were educated to know what we had and what we’re losing," Cantrell said. "The rainforest gets lots of press, and it's very important, but this is far more endangered."
But for Cantrell, there's hope that as more people learn about prairie and work to restore it, there will be more opportunities for the life it once supported to make a comeback.
Finally, after hours of standing around in the cold, a solitary owl appeared in the distance: a lone visitor where there once might have been hundreds.
Correction: when this story aired, it incorrectly referred to the prairie as "Wah She Sha," rather than "Wah Sha She."