So, last month I went to Chicago to see birds. That may seem odd to most people, that I would go to a big city to do so. However, when that city and its environs are alongside a massive lake and have more nature preserves than all of the Central Illinois nature preserves put together, it suddenly starts to make sense.
And I haven’t even talked about Montrose yet. Montrose Point is arguably the best birding spot in Illinois. It’s a small peninsula jutting out into Lake Michigan. The northern section is a beach with a dunes/swale community, including a small marshy wetland, while the southern part is a tangle of bushes and small trees with a grassland section just between that part and the lake itself. This mix of habitats on a north-south lakeshore along which birds migrate, providing some of the only good habitat for miles around… yeah, it’s a MASSIVE bird spot.
I drove up Monday afternoon and got up at 4-something in the morning to drive into the city to see birds at Montrose Point. The weather had shifted from south to north winds with storms in the middle of the night, during mid-May- a great combination for birdwatching. Basically, birds flying north during the night (and most of the smaller ones like warblers and sparrows migrate during the night) are pushed forwards by the south winds. The north winds and storms cause them to drop down and seek shelter. They also make the lake very foggy and the sky very cloudy- which doesn’t help with photos.
We arrived and could already tell that there were a ton of birds, as Common Yellowthroats and White-crowned Sparrows hopped about in the open grass.
As we walked under a tree, we looked up to find this Black-crowned Night Heron( Nycticorax nycticorax), just above our heads. The pre-dawn, misty weather made it rather difficult to get anything better than this photo. I’m sure an actual photographer would have done a better job:
Two Striped Skunks (Mephitis mephitis) wandered about for a bit, and we kept our distance and I took a video, calling out new birds as we heard/saw them.
We then went to the beach, watching flocks of shorebirds fly in, land and depart as people spooked them. The fog obscured them pretty well, but it was apparent on closer inspection that several Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) and many Least Sandpipers (Calidris minutilla) were among the flocks:
As the sky lightened, many of the shorebirds took off, including a flock of 24 Short-billed Dowitchers (Limnodromus griseus). Two remained for a bit, along with Least Sandpipers and a Dunlin (Calidris alpina, larger sandpiper straight down from the right end of the knoll with the Dowitchers in the midground)
One of those Least Sandpipers is below:
After about 8:00 most of the shorebirds departed. Remaining behind were ten Spotted Sandpipers (Actitis macularius) , breeders in Montrose’s interdunal wetlands. If you can’t tell, I very much enjoy sandpipers, and on sandy beaches they let you get close enough for photos:
Perhaps the best beach find was a small plover. We noticed it, Kyle thought it was a Semipalmated, and I insisted that it was too light, and it was a Piping Plover. Closer inspection revealed the truth, it WAS a Piping Plover! Hurrah! Piping Plovers (Charadrius melodus) are awesome. There’s only about 6500 of them in the entire world. This one is of the interior breeding circumcinctus subspecies, which is slightly darker overall in coloration and has slightly larger, thicker black markings than the Atlantic Coast’s melodius subspecies. Both subspecies are extremely cute, a fact that needs to be noted more often in scientific articles.
Federally threatened, this particular bird is from the Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan, where a small but healthy population of these rare little plovers nest every year. The little colored bands help to identify each individual plover, as records are kept of each bird. Thanks to research by Fran Morel that he posted on the Illinois Birding Network Facebook group, we have this individual’s life story:
“Very cool sighting! Of,B/OR:X,L just hatched last year in the captive rearing center. Its mother was a long-time breeder at Sleeping Bear Dunes (and one of the few females that has attempted and successfully raised 2 broods in one season!!), but was killed by a suspected dog off leash about a week prior to the expected hatch date.
The eggs were taken into captive rearing, and 3 chicks successfully fledged and were released at Sleeping Bear on July 5 (including this guy). So, long story short, we don’t know where this bird will show up to breed – likely Sleeping Bear. What’s really exciting is that she looks to be female to me, which we could always use more of, so fingers crossed she makes it across the lake and finds a mate to settle down with!”
A pair of Piping Plovers is attempting to nest at Waukegan Beach in Lake county Illinois this year. Hopefully they make it and no stray dogs or people interfere. The world needs more adorable Piping Plovers. If I cooed over this bird any more, I’d turn into a dove. Let’s move on.
Oh, but we’re not done with cute plovers! This is the even rarer Stilt-legged Fuzzy Plover. They associate with Killdeer (Charadrius vociferous) and are only seen for a few weeks or so in the springtime. They’re flightless and move everywhere by running.
(Before I mislead anyone, this is a baby Killdeer).
Looking south from the “point” of Montrose Point, the Chicago skyline began to loose its veil of fog. Palm Warblers danced about everywhere, and I ignored them, heading up into the “Magic Hedge”- a bunch of tangled bushes and trees that had hundreds of warblers, off to my right in the photo. I do mean hundreds. It was insane.
We noticed several Blackburnian Warblers (Setophaga fusca) , including this one. I was highly amused by watching the antics of other birders at Montrose- mostly old men dressed in full camo with camera lenses the length of my arm, wandering about, heads jerking from side to side with every bird, in the middle of a city park. I did see some people I’d interacted with online- most of those were dressed in somewhat fashionable clothing and slightly less old. Being from downstate Illinois, it’s rare for me to encounter other birders when I’m out. Seeing dozens of birders was as impressive as all the birds, even if they were a faintly ridiculous spectacle.
Of course, when you see dozens of birds almost at arm’s length, like this Magnolia Warbler (Setophaga magnolia), just hopping around in the brush, it’s amazing. That’s why Montrose has the reputation it does. We saw at least 25 of these Magnolia Warblers, by the way. Insane.
Look, a photo that doesn’t appear to have been taken with a potato! This is a Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor), sitting on a rope around the “forbidden” section of the Montrose Dunes, closed to prevent trampling of the rare plants present.
Back up in the Magic Hedge, Kyle and I just walked around every corner, bumping into people Kyle knew or lifer birds for me. Canada Warbler and then this Black-throated Blue Warbler (Setophaga caerulescens) fell rapidly, and a Hooded Warbler was an additional treat, seeing as those aren’t very common up this far north.
By far the most common warbler was the American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla), male shown above. We stopped counting after 52, which is almost certainly an underestimate. Other birds we had counts of 52 of include White-crowned Sparrow (exact) and Palm Warbler (again, stopped counting after a certain point). Redstarts are glorious, especially in numbers.
Here’s a female or young male American Redstart showing off its unique crossbow-shaped tail pattern. This color form was nearly as common as the adult males in their black and orange.
While looking at all the Redstarts and another Canada Warbler, Scott Latimer walked up to us with a photo of a “strange looking shorebird”. It was a King Rail! He’d just taken a photo of it on the trail adjacent to the Magic Hedge, walking through what is basically an overgrown lawn. We, along with about a dozen of the birders present, went to try and find it again. King Rails are probably one of the best players of hide-and-seek in the animal kingdom (after most Australian desert fauna*) so of course we didn’t see it again. It’s been at Montrose up to the time of this writing (6/14), showing itself every couple of days and otherwise hiding out in the grasses.
People fed some of the bolder seedeating birds here, including this Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) and the Red-winged Blackbirds that dive-bombed Kyle and I. One pecked him on the head, and the same bird got me a day later.
Having gone on at length about the birdlife, I feel compelled to show off a few plants. Plants don’t move much, which helps considerably in their getting recorded for posterity by me.
This reddish “flower” (actually colored leaves) is the Scarlet Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea), a partial parasite of the dune grasses and one of my favorite plants.
Another partial parasite (hemiparasite; see, I do know the correct term) is this Lousewort (Pedicularis canadensis)-what a lovely set of names! Both of these plants steal water and nutrients from other plants, but they also obtain and make their own. Partial parasitism is a very good strategy in the arid, sandy dunes- the soil dries out quickly, so these plants get water by any means necessary for their survival. Other plants try different strategies to thrive here:
Federally-threatened Pitcher’s Thistle (Cirsium pitcheri) have silvery foliage to reflect sunlight and conserve water loss, as well as a deep taproot (six feet or more) that grows downwards in search of water. Unfortunately, just like the Piping Plover, development and trampling on Great Lakes beaches has led to Pitcher’s Thistles becoming increasingly rare. Thankfully, a few survive, even in this fairly busy urban park in the heart of Chicago.
Alright, this is a migrant trap, so that’s enough plants. Back to birds.
For the longest time, Chestnut-sided Warblers (Setophaga pensylvanica) eluded me. They’re not rare, I’m just bad at finding them. Having failed to find a King Rail, I turned back to looking for warblers and finally got a picture of this nemesis bird, as well as even better binocular looks.
Also showing off well was this Mourning Warbler (Geothlypis philadelphia). It was my last lifer of the day… wow! It actually stopped and posed! Mourning Warblers are probably one of the shyer warbler species, so seeing one as well as I did was a gratifying experience.
At this point, Kyle and I had spent over six hours at Montrose, and seen 91 different species. That’s quite a lot! I hated to leave, but I had limited time in Chicago and I really wanted to find a Clay-colored Sparrow and/or Yellow-headed Blackbird, two birds not present at Montrose though they had been over the weekend.
Our spots for Clay-colored Sparrow turned out to be a bust, and while we did see a Least Bittern at the Yellow-headed Blackbird spot, that ended up being a bust also. Still, any field with Bobolinks(Dolichonyx oryzivorus) flying along and giving their weird calls gets my approval.
One of our last stops was at a power station for one of the more unique birds of Chicagoland- the Monk Parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus). Native to southern South America, this parrot species escaped into the wild and now resides in small colonies throughout the Chicago area:
The following morning, Kyle had to work in Indiana. I was back up and at it early, but the weather had shifted. While there were still a few interesting birds (new to me for the county were Eastern Bluebird, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Sedge Wren, Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), and SOMEHOW Chipping Sparrow), the main attraction was seeing a few young birders I’d not met before- Ben Sanders, Isoo O’brien, and Eddie Kaspar.
We wandered about for a bit, down to the beach and back (beach picture below) , but there wasn’t as much as they wanted so they left. I decided to go forth and wander about Lake county…
Montrose Point ebird checklists:
*I’ve discussed this before, but Australian animals, particularly in the deserts of the Outback, tend to disappear for decades before being rediscovered. Night Parrots, Nothomyrmecia ants, and the Inland Taipan (most venomous snake in the world) come to mind as species that have been lost and reappeared after decades in Australia.