Six spring migration hotspots in Chicago

A low-stress guide to a half-dozen places to see birds, as chosen by birders.

The same geography that made Chicago into an economic engine also serves as an ancient flyway for birds migrating north and south. Lake Michigan acts as a funnel. When birds reach the lake from the south, they head either west or east. This has resulted in astonishing flights at places like Indiana Dunes State Park, as recently as last year. The birds that head west often end up in Chicago. They fly out over the lake and land for rest and foraging at places like Montrose Point on the city’s North Side. (In my view, Montrose rates with Indiana Dunes, Whitefish Point, Mich., Point Pelee, Ontario, and Magee Marsh, Ohio, as one of the top migrant traps around the Great Lakes.)

In early March, I posted a poll question on the Illinois Birding Network Facebook page:

As noted, these are in the city limits, not the suburbs or other outlying areas. Amazingly, the city itself is home to the top hotspots for species counts in the region and in Illinois. Part of this is that these locales get birded more often by more people. But an even bigger part of it is the location along the lake. We’re also near a crossroads of sorts between the “prairie peninsula” that juts out from the Great Plains and the deciduous forests that make their way from the east.

I’m going with the top six here instead of five because of a close call between the last two and to broaden the geographic distribution. One note of caution, if you haven’t been to these areas before…they are all vast. It takes time to get to know them, and a huge variable in this is weather, which is particularly an issue along the lakefront in spring. You’ll benefit from having binoculars, but it’s very well possible to enjoy these sites simply with your eyes and ears, too. Public transit is a solid option for most of these, with Big Marsh being the exception (Eggers Grove is fairly isolated if you’re not coming from the Southeast Side.) And finally, please be sure to stay on official trails to protect fragile plant species.

#1 Montrose Point

Montrose was far and away the No. 1 choice in the poll—by a 2-to-1 margin. It packs a variety of habitats into a compact area and most any species can turn up there. I recommend standing by the Magic Hedge just after dawn on a calm morning, with the sunlight at your back. For a more adventurous experience, stand at the farthest point north and east in the dunes, near where the fishing pier meets the lake, and see what flies past or alights near you. It’s a whole other world out there. I suggest reading Bob Hughes’ excellent primer on Montrose birding. Address for GPS: 600 West Montrose Avenue.

#2 Jackson Park

The two key destinations, at least in spring, are Bobolink Meadow and the Wooded Island, just south of the Museum of Science and Industry, accessible via the parking lot on Hayes Drive. I also like to walk around the Inner Harbor, and then under Lake Shore Drive and toward La Rabida Hospital. Early in the season, these are great locales for waterfowl and an occasional Merlin. Address for GPS: 1971 East Hayes Drive.

#3 LaBagh Woods

LaBagh is the southernmost of a thin necklace of forest preserves that snake their way along the North Branch of the Chicago River. It’s a migrant trap on the right days and has benefited from a mighty restoration effort for a number of years. Trails can be swampy in spring, but you can stay high and dry by standing on the trestle over the river and see what turns up—uncommon Cerulean Warblers delighted many in May last year. Bob Hughes also has a guide to birding LaBagh here. Address for GPS: 4498 West Foster Avenue.

#4 Eggers Grove

This is a hidden gem, tucked into the southeast corner of Chicago, along the Indiana border. Birds have been using the area as a stopover since ancient times when Lake Michigan lapped all the way to these shores. The woods are a reliable place for spring passerines, and the large wetland (really a small lake) that abuts the Indiana Toll Road is often laden with waterfowl. A nice add-on to a visit is Wolf Lake to the south. Address for GPS: 11251 South Avenue B.

#5 North Pond

This small body of water features the stunning backdrop of the North Side skyline. A walk around the circumference of the pond is bound to yield an interesting mix of species. Look for waterthrushes—warblers that behave like thrushes—walking along the water’s edge in spring. The nearby Black-crowned Night Heron colony in Lincoln Park Zoo is worth a side trip (the zoo currently requires a reservation). Address for GPS: 2610 North Cannon Drive.

#6 Big Marsh

This is an extensive wetland forever altered by the industrialization of the Calumet region. Once adjacent to ancient Lake Michigan, the property harbors an array of waterfowl in most any season. As we get closer to summer, the stars of the show—if you can see them, or more likely hear them—are the secretive marsh birds, Virginia Rail, Least Bittern and Common Gallinule. I’ve found the brushy areas around the marsh to be great for a diversity of sparrow species, too. Walk from the parking lot east and north past the BMX park. Address for GPS: 11559 South Stony Island Avenue.

Others receiving votes (in order): Rainbow Beach, Washington Park, Jarvis Sanctuary, West Ridge Sanctuary, Graceland Cemetery, Museum Campus/Northerly Island, Bunker Hill/Caldwell Preserves, Humboldt Park, Hegewisch Marsh, River Park, Steelworkers Park, Park No. 566 and Grant Park.

More resources: Openlands Get Outside Map; Chicago Audubon Society’s Hotspots.

The changing plumage of the handsome American Goldfinch

Spring brings with it lofty expectations for waves of migrants and warm days where the birds are simply too numerous to possibly even count. The reality is we’ve hit a bit of a lull, and tomorrow’s forecast for snow reinforces that. Sure, some migrants like Eastern Phoebes are around, as well as a few sparrows, but the major waves of wood warblers are still a few weeks away.

I’ve found solace in photographing in detail two male American Goldfinches that have been making the transition into summer plumage. Our thistle feeder sits right outside the dining room window. Above are a few of the 100-plus photos I’ve taken of these birds since March 18.

A of grackles

A while back I suggested that a group of Northern Cardinals should be described as an appreciation. I’ve been watching (and appreciating) Common Grackles around our yard since late February and recently discovered that a group of grackles is called a plague. It backs up the sense I’ve had that there’s a stigma against these birds for whatever reason. Perhaps they are aggressive, and they have a harsh call. Otherwise, I find them just as interesting as any other bird, if not more.

So I’ve put together a survey here for what a group of grackles should be called instead of plague. Please write in any suggestion, as well as any comments you have about grackles. The thing is, these birds gather in groups a lot, so a good name is really necessary.

TWiB Notes

Here’s a fantastic conversation between Noah Strycker of Birding and Mark Obmascik, author of “The Big Year,” a book later turned into a major film starring Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson. The film captures birding with an enjoyable mix of humor and ornithology. There are appearances from Rashida Jones and the late Brian Dennehy as well…..Just in time for the top six list, here comes a Patch Chat about LaBagh Woods presented by Chicago Ornithological Society on the evening of April 20……Block Club Chicago featured the Douglass 18, a bird-themed miniature golf course opening this year in Douglass Park on the West Side. The project is a teen-led public art initiative with the goal of educating others about birds.

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