Five places to go birding in and around Chicago this fall

Migration is already here again—look for some autumn favorites in these local natural areas

I’m going to let you in on a secret: Fall started two months ago. It may sound strange, but for some birds it’s actually the case. Though we typically associate birds’ movements with our meteorological seasons, shorebirds began making their way south from their Arctic breeding grounds in June. So fall migration has long been under way. At Montrose Beach this summer, there were plenty of Semipalmated Sandpipers, Sanderlings and others that’d already been north to the tundra and are on their way back.

But for the purposes of this post, we’re talking mostly Passerines, the perching birds, from warblers to sparrows to finches and more. Some of those birds have been headed south for a while, too. Others are just getting started.

Here are suggestions of special places to go this fall, or at least this month and into September. With the exception of Lowden State Park, these are all within a short drive from downtown Chicago.

Big Marsh – It wasn’t too long ago in geological time that the marshes on Chicago’s Far South Side were part of Lake Michigan. That’s the case with Big Marsh, a city park that sits in the industry-riddled Calumet region. Big Marsh is known for its eponymous nesting birds, but check it out in fall, too, for songbird migrants. Park in the southern lot along Stony Island and walk to the east, toward the BMX park. There’s shrubby habitat here, along the marsh, where a variety of sparrows and finch species can be plentiful in fall.   

Caldwell Woods – There’s a thin necklace of forest preserves on Chicago’s Northwest Side that skirt the North Branch of the Chicago River. Caldwell Woods is about as far north and west in Chicago as one can be. The site is home to a unique flatwoods habitat as well as the floodplain forest that follows the river as it winds toward downtown. Park at the lot near the intersection of Caldwell and Tonty Avenue. Then walk south along the multipurpose North Branch Trail until you reach the bridge over the river. Head off trail northwest of the river and reach a secluded prairie and oxbow lagoon.

Lowden State Park – About 90 minutes west of the Loop, the flat post-glacial terrain gives way to the Rock River Valley, which meanders south from Rockford. Lowden State Park sits up on a bluff that provides a panorama of the valley and the town of Oregon, seat of Ogle County. The site might be most notable for Lorado Taft’s concrete sculpture, The Eternal Indian, aka the Black Hawk Statue. But follow the trail downhill from the statue for some good birding along the banks of the river, where I’ve had little groups of Nashville and Magnolia warblers. A bonus is the natural spring that flows out of the bluff.

Paul Douglas Forest Preserve – This 1,800-acre parcel is a gem amid the commercial centers of the Jane Addams Tollway northwest of Chicago. It offers a variety of habitats and myriad options from the Grassy Ridge Meadow parking area. I suggest walking east from the parking lot, past the wetland and up a wooded hill. From there, you’ll see an old flagpole, walk into the woods there. Last fall I had a Tufted Titmouse at the spot and you’re likely to see and hear several woodpecker species as well.

Waterfall Glen – This is a big forest preserve that encompasses a hilly complex of woodlands and prairie. One of the birdier areas is along Sawmill Creek. Walk it downstream from the Waterfall Parking Lot just west of Kingery Highway on Bluff Road. Cross the railroad tracks at the base of the hill for an off-trail trek to the Des Plaines River. One of my favorite facts about this preserve is that it is named for Seymour “Bud” Waterfall, an early president of DuPage Forest Preserves’ Board of Commissioners.


A Limpkin is again amazing folks in Illinois, as Doug Stotz of the Field Museum notes above. This time it’s at Dixon Waterfowl Refuge, which is about two hours southwest of Chicago. A few weeks ago, I’d written about the vagrant wader that was visiting Chain O’Lakes State Park near the Wisconsin border. Perhaps this is the same bird?


“Monty and Rose 2: The World of Monty and Rose” is less than two weeks away!

Join us for the premiere of my second documentary about Monty and Rose! We will have reduced capacity due to Covid 19, and masks, but the show will go on. This is a new film, a new story line with new characters and a lot of new footage of our favorite plovers. Buy tickets for the Saturday, Sept. 4, and Monday, Sept. 6, showings by clicking here and join us for a panel Q&A afterward. We encourage buying tickets in advance to limit interactions at the venue on the 4th and 6th.

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TWiB Notes

Earlier this summer, Todd Pover, Senior Wildlife Biologist for Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, visited Chicago with his colleagues Kashi Davis and Emily Heiser, who together head up New Jersey’s beach-nesting birds program. The trio was in town to visit with endangered Piping Plovers “Monty” and “Rose.” Todd recently recapped his visit to Chicago and his interest in Monty and Rose in a blog post on the CWFNJ website. Todd notes that when he started his ‘plover career’ he was ‘immediately and inexplicably smitten by Piping Plovers, although I didn’t realize it would completely change my life.’ Many Chicagoans can relate……The Chicago Tribune’s Morgan Greene wrote about the status of Ospreys in Cook County. The Forest Preserves of Cook County have put up 20 nest platforms for the raptors, whose numbers had declined sharply throughout their range decades ago due to DDT. There were 14 nesting pairs on the platforms in the county this year, with 11 making it through the summer despite severe weather.

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