These ducks have decided to spend the winter on the Chicago River

Buffleheads, goldeneyes and mergansers are finding a healthy waterway that’s teeming with life in the middle of a metropolis.

The ducks spending this winter on the North Branch of the Chicago River are blissfully unaware of the waterway’s reputation. The buffleheads, goldeneyes and mergansers are content to feast on the many fish and invertebrates the river offers. It’s the humans that still have misconceptions.

“The Chicago River system is really largely misunderstood at this point as far as how healthy it is,” Margaret Frisbie of Friends of the Chicago River says. “It is dramatically better than what it used to be.”

I reached out to Frisbie after spending a couple of weekends observing the waterfowl that have gathered where Diversey Parkway crosses the North Branch. Friends of the Chicago River knows the river and its 156-mile watershed better than most anyone.

I wondered, though, if it was safe for the waterfowl to be feeding in the river, even now. Many of us know of the sewage discharges as well as the famous befouling at locations like Bubbly Creek near the old Union Stockyards. Frisbie, though, says that industrial pollution is less of an issue than it once was.

“Stormwater is the number one source of water pollution according to the EPA,” Frisbie says, “and better, more nature-based control is high on our list of priorities. We also continue to have [sewage outflow] when it rains that brings road salt, paint and motor oil. But water quality in the river is still much better compared to what it was.”

The bigger challenges—and opportunities—relate to eliminating combined sewage outflow (CSO), increasing dissolved oxygen in the system and restoring river banks to their natural condition. The Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP) project of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, more commonly known as the Deep Tunnel project, captures 85% of what had been sewer overflows. Excess stormwater can be managed through river bank restoration, like at Horner Park and Ronan Park on the North Side, and upland habitat improvements. Farther south, there is indeed an effort to restore the notorious Bubbly Creek.

“We’ve only begun to dent native habitat and river bank restoration,” Frisbie says. “At Bubbly Creek, we’re looking at planting emergent plants and substrate restoration, mimicking a river bed rather than the sediment that is there now.”

On the oxygen front, the River Park project, which removed a dam near the North Park neighborhood, has helped bring a section of river back to life. A healthy fish population brings wintering waterfowl, like those at Diversey that dive underwater for their prey. Here’s a new video of the ducks, sharing it for the first time with TWiB readers:

The ducks offer more than just the novelty of seeing them in the neon glow of the Diversey River Bowl. Bufflehead, for example, breed in places like northern Manitoba and around the Hudson Bay before making their journey to Chicago and points south. That they winter on the river is an ecosystem success story, says Frisbie.

“It shows that the river’s alive,” Frisbie says, “and that if we invest in projects to make it healthier, it will pay it back for wildlife as well as people, too.”

If you go: There are at least two ways to access views of the river at Diversey. The first is to park at Diversey River Bowl. I’ve generally had no issues there, and found a large group of Redhead along the shore on one visit. The second is to park on Leavitt Street just south of Diversey at Lathrop Chicago. From there, walk north and veer left to access the new walkway over the river. Then proceed north on the walkway to access a small riverside park with a fishing pier.

Gyrfalcon stuns many in Lake County

Our largest falcon, a Gyrfalcon, appeared suddenly in Lake County last week. The visitor from the high Arctic was first seen on a tour by local guiding company Red Hill Birding.

“I was there leading my group of eight people, looking around at plenty of gulls, when one of the guys in my group saw it,” says Red Hill founder Josh Engel. “He’s not even a birder and just comes along for the ride with his wife. Tamima [Itani] and I both got it in our scopes and starting freaking out, saying ‘Gyr Gyr.’”

An occasional Gyrfalcon (pronounced JER-falcon) is seen each year in Illinois, typically in agricultural fields. The birds are circumpolar, meaning their range rings the entirety of the Arctic, stretching from the high crags of Greenland to Asia. The fearsome predator hung around until at least Thursday of last week, making meals of many wintering ducks and getting into entanglements with the local Peregrine Falcons.

So what of the Red Hill gull tour?

“Basically we forgot all about the gulls and turned our attention to the Gyrfalcon,” says Engel. 

TWiB Notes

In my mind, the Great Backyard Bird Count, which starts this Friday, constitutes one leg in birding’s annual Triple Crown, the others being the Spring Bird Count and the Christmas Bird Count. Anyone can join the global effort taking place Feb. 12-15…..As fans of our local Piping Plovers may attest, coastal monitoring programs make a difference for the well-being of birds. A new study published in Conservation Biology states that stewardship programs reduce human disturbance and increase effectiveness for vulnerable coastal birds. One of the study’s authors is Sarah Saunders, who studied the Great Lakes Piping Plover population for her PhD and continues to assist with annual banding and recovery efforts…..The Biden Administration has placed a one-month hold on a rollback of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act that would have removed penalties for companies that accidentally kill migratory birds. The Trump Administration provision would have gone into effect today.

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