'Always be birding' | Sightseeing | Chicago Reader

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'Always be birding'

Local birdwatchers embrace urban wildlife and conservation.

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A red-winged blackbird sits next to Montrose Beach in June 2019. - JJ NICOLE
  • JJ Nicole
  • A red-winged blackbird sits next to Montrose Beach in June 2019.

"Chicago is a bird watcher's paradise," said Scott Judd, an experienced birder. Birder and environmental worker Miranda Wecker says the city is better for spotting birds than rural Washington state, where she has lived for many years. The green spaces and lakeside location make approximately 350 species of birds observable in Chicago. Lake Michigan's elongated shape is ideal for migration, as birds prefer flying over the city instead of directly over the water. Both independently and through groups such as the Chicago Audubon Society and Chicago Ornithological Society, birding enthusiasts indulge their interest through bird walks and information seminars, and contribute to the conservation of species and environments.

Spring and fall, when migrations of birds pass through the city, are the best months for birding. But spending time listening to chirps has been complicated this year. Since the coronavirus pandemic swept through the state and the governor issued a shelter-in-place order, the Chicago Audubon Society and Chicago Ornithological Society have canceled their regular bird walks and moved their birding education services online.

A blue-gray gnatcatcher sits on a branch during the Chicago Audubon Society's Wooded Island Bird Walk in May 2019 in Jackson Park. - JJ NICOLE
  • JJ Nicole
  • A blue-gray gnatcatcher sits on a branch during the Chicago Audubon Society's Wooded Island Bird Walk in May 2019 in Jackson Park.

Ted Wolff, an avid birder who has led Chicago Ornithological Society bird walks himself, said that the lowering water level of Lake Michigan in the 1980s and the subsequent formation of dunes created an environment that allowed several bird species to flourish. He noted that Chicago's beaches create an ideal habitat for gulls and shorebirds.

Long-time birder Thomas Mulcahy said the city's location along an inner body of water is ideal for breeding and migrating birds. Judd named several popular birding locations in the area, including the Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary on the city's north side, LaBagh Woods on the northwest side, and the Northwestern University campus in Evanston. The combination of "locals," or Chicago's year-round species, and migrating birds creates a notable variety. If getting to one of the hot spots isn't an option, Judd says cemeteries or locations with nonmanicured grass or ponds are promising alternatives.

Many participants record sightings on networks such as eBird, a site supported by Cornell University. Users can view others' sightings and add their own. "There are a huge variety of people who bird in Chicago and they are invariably kind and helpful," said birder Shana Conner, an experienced birder. Bruce McCullough, a birding enthusiast who regularly attends walks by the Chicago Audubon Society and the Chicago Ornithological Society, enjoys birding as a way to get into nature.

A gray catbird stops in the shrubbery during the Chicago Ornithological Society's Jackson Park Warbler Bonanza in May 2019. In much of May, the park is filled with both local and migrating species. - JJ NICOLE
  • JJ Nicole
  • A gray catbird stops in the shrubbery during the Chicago Ornithological Society's Jackson Park Warbler Bonanza in May 2019. In much of May, the park is filled with both local and migrating species.

Linda Gels, a longtime birding enthusiast, appreciates how the crowd of birders has expanded over time. "Must say back then seemed most birders appeared to me quite an older crowd . . . Now I do see a shift to many younger folks interested in birding which is fun to see," said Gels.

"ABB = Always Be Birding," says Judd. He recommends 8x42 binoculars and suggests setting your eyes on the bird then moving the binoculars to your brow without changing your gaze. Those looking to learn identification basics can use digital bird guides such as iBird and the Sibley Guide to Birds to learn physical and auditory characteristics. Cornell University's All About Birds provides visual identification help as well as recordings of species calls. City sounds do not prevent calls from being heard in real life; Jeff Skrentny, a LaBagh Woods walk leader and one of its lead restoration volunteers, says birds sing louder in urban settings to compensate for the noise. One can potentially hear countless species named, including catbirds, warbling vireos, purple martins, woodpeckers, orioles, warblers, herons, hummingbirds, flycatchers, and more.

"Birding is a lot like playing an instrument or cooking," said Judd, who is experienced in both. Just as novice musicians and cooks are encouraged to master simple recipes or songs first, novice birders are urged to start with the basics. Judd recommends focusing first on local (nonmigrating) species, such as the American robin or house sparrow, and looking at feather colors, leg colors, and visual patterns, which largely narrow it down. Migrating species and additional attributes are best incorporated later.

While a prime birding spot, Chicago has conservation concerns and local birders are both passionate and responsive. Chicago Audubon Society's Brezina Woods bird walk leader Doug Stotz explained that climate change confuses birds by creating weather patterns they are not used to. Wolff described off-leash dogs as a threat to nesting and mating bird species on Chicago beaches. Tall buildings and overnight lights often cause birds to run into buildings.

A tree swallow perches on a fence post blocking a protected area of the Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary in June 2019. The sanctuary contains several guarded areas to preserve the many species present. - JJ NICOLE
  • JJ Nicole
  • A tree swallow perches on a fence post blocking a protected area of the Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary in June 2019. The sanctuary contains several guarded areas to preserve the many species present.

Several volunteer efforts and online resources constitute a large effort to salvage Chicago's bird species. Bird-Friendly Chicago urges for a Bird-Friendly Buildings Ordinance designed to eliminate bird collisions with glass buildings or illuminated building areas, and the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors' Lights Out Chicago movement encourages decreased overnight illumination. "Many people aren't aware of how special and critical our location is for birds," said Topp, emphasizing that any conservation effort is beneficial.

Skrentny is concerned about plans to create an illuminated path along the Weber Spur Trail in LaBagh Woods, which he says will be a disturbance to the great horned owls and screech owls who live nearby, and says motion-activated lights would be a preferable alternative. "We would be very disappointed if they lit this up like a Christmas tree," Skrentny said. There is also talk of adding condominiums to the area. The woods being built upon and fragmented has already disturbed species and eliminated several amphibians. "What isn't there is going to be hard to get back again."

Conner is a conservationist who independently rescues injured birds and has volunteered in monitoring marsh birds. She notes the significant work organizations like the Chicago Ornithological Society have done to keep an element of nature in the city, and Wolff notes their efforts in restoring LaBagh Woods. The Lake Calumet region on Chicago's south side has been the site of restoration efforts by the Chicago Park District, the Forest Preserves of Cook County, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, according to Wolff. Conservation volunteer Bob Hostettler says the increased talk of shrubs alone has improved local conservation work. Maureen Murphy, who volunteers at LaBagh Woods, says contributing to the restoration of bird habitats provides hope in spite of the ways urban activity threatens them.

A warbling vireo peers toward birdwatchers during the Jackson Park Warbler Bonanza in May 2019. - JJ NICOLE
  • JJ Nicole
  • A warbling vireo peers toward birdwatchers during the Jackson Park Warbler Bonanza in May 2019.

"Despite these laudable efforts and projects much remains to be done, and there are always many opportunities for further ecological restoration and habitat improvements at other Lake Calumet locations, along the branches of the Chicago River, elsewhere along the lakefront, and in many of the Chicago Park District's inland parks," said Wolff.

There are simple ways to contribute to conservation. Turning off lights overnight helps birds stay on path. Since climate change disturbs annual bird patterns, recycling and minimizing energy, water, and pollutant use are beneficial. Chicago Bird Collision Monitors offer opportunities to help injured birds, which are common results of building collisions. They also provide assistance with injured bird findings and can be reached at 773-988-1867 or birdmonitors.net.

"The work of dedicated conservationists past and present should be more widely acknowledged and appreciated," Wecker said. One of the most recent projects in local conservation was a response to observed piping plovers, a federally endangered species, seen mating on Montrose Beach. The area surrounding the nest has been enclosed and volunteers sponsored by the Chicago Ornithological Society keep active watch.

Participants stop to observe birds as they make their way around the water during the Chicago Ornithological Society’s North Pond Bird Walk in May 2019. - JJ NICOLE
  • JJ Nicole
  • Participants stop to observe birds as they make their way around the water during the Chicago Ornithological Society’s North Pond Bird Walk in May 2019.

Chris Rademacher, a birder who attends events with both the Chicago Audubon Society and the Chicago Ornithological Society, suggests planting native species in your yard, volunteering in prairie and wetland restoration, and speaking with legislators about improving natural areas. Rademacher said Illinois doesn't measure up to its nickname as the "Prairie State." "We are more like the 'unprairie state' today," Rademacher said, noting that less than 1 percent of Illinois's original prairie remains, which is problematic as birds rely on prairies for habitat. He indicated that, because the 1972 Endangered Species Act salvaged the bald eagle population and later efforts increased the numbers of local peregrine falcons, there is hope for today. "With the right motivation and measures, we can influence our world for the better."

While awaiting the return of more in-person bird walks as Chicago continues through the reopening process, birding enthusiasts can check out online offerings from the Chicago Audubon Society and Chicago Ornithological Society. Presentations on birding in Chicago's North Park Village as well as on birding and conservation in the lesser-known Boreal Forest can be viewed on the Chicago Audubon's website. The Chicago Ornithological Society is offering Patch Chats, or opportunities for birders to check out a specified birding location and then discuss their findings via Zoom.   v

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