Because Lake Michigan commands a central position on the Mississippi Flyway—an avian migratory route stretching from New Orleans to northwest Canada—some seven million birds, encompassing more than 300 species, pass through Chicago each spring and fall. But bird watching is a year-round activity: Look for mating and nesting in the summer, and numerous birds, including woodpeckers, owls, and some waterfowl, that stay through the winter.
WHERE TO GO
Spring Bluff Nature Preserve: Crisscrossed by ridges and swales, this 274-acre preserve is home to sandpipers, rails, sparrows, bitterns, and snipe (situated just south of the Wisconsin state line near the junction of Sheridan Road and Main Street, 847-968-3329; no cars permitted, so enter the preserve through the gate at the south end of the parking lot for the North Point Marina in Winthrop Harbor).
Illinois Beach State Park: With forest, marsh, grassland, and beach habitats, this seven-mile-long shoreline park attracts a wide variety of birds; head here in the fall when the winds are out of the west to spot falcons and hawks (on the lakefront off Wadsworth Road in Zion; 847-662-4811).
Montrose Point: The Rick's Café of Chicago birding—sooner or later, every bird shows up here—this peninsula jutting into Lake Michigan boasts the internationally renowned Magic Hedge, a 150-yard strip of trees and shrubs that once bordered a Nike missile base (the hedge is on a small hill east of Harbor Drive in Montrose Harbor).
Bill Jarvis Migratory Bird Sanctuary: Surrounded by an eight-foot-high fence, this six-acre site is closed to human visitors, who can take advantage of the viewing platform on the sanctuary's east side. More than 150 species are visible throughout the year, including the black-crowned night heron, which often roosts here (on the lakefront behind the totem pole at Addison Street).
Northerly Island: Sightings of the majestic snowy owl are not uncommon on this 91-acre man-made peninsula (at Lake Shore Drive and McFetridge Drive; access via Solidarity Drive, south of the John G. Shedd Aquarium).
Wooded Island: More than 250 species have been spotted at this Jackson Park destination; look for black rails and monk parakeets (access via the Clarence Darrow Bridge south of the Museum of Science and Industry; birding tours begin at the bridge Wednesday mornings at 7 and Saturdays at 8).
South Shore Cultural Center Nature Sanctuary: A boardwalk leads birders through the mixed habitats—wetlands, prairies, and dunes—of this 4.27-acre site, where fruit-bearing trees have been planted specifically to lure birds. The circular limestone benches were designed by the Midwestern landscape architect Jens Jensen (7059 South Shore Drive, south
of the field house; 773-256-0149).
Hegewisch Marsh: Though several miles inland and surrounded by industry, this terrific birding site is classified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a coastal wetland because of its proximity to Lake Michigan. Threatened with extinction, yellow-headed blackbirds nest and raise their young here (at 130th Street and Torrence Avenue).
Miller Woods: Situated within the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, this 75-acre preserve features a short trail leading through wetlands and oak savanna (start your tour at the Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education, 20 North Lake Street, Gary; 219-926-7561, ext. 225).
FIELD GUIDE: Look and Listen
As most Chicagoans know, the state bird is the cardinal. See if you can spot some of these less common winged visitors.
BLACK-THROATED BLUE WARBLER
BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT HERON
>> Get a map, a checklist, and other useful birding information at cityofchicago.org/Environment/Bird
>> Before heading into the field, pick up Chris C. Fisher's Birds of Chicago (Lone Pine Publishing; $9.95).
>> Wild Birds Unlimited, a source for guides, binoculars, and bird feeders, has stores throughout metro Chicago (wbu.com).
>> Contact the Chicago Audubon Society at 773-539-6793 or chicagoaudubon.org.
Photograph: Andy Marfia