When I started birding along the Chicago lakefront in the early 70s sightings of other birders were a lot rarer than sightings of birds. Of course the parks were generally less heavily used in those days. I once narrowly escaped a mugging near North Pond, between Fullerton and Diversey, on a perfectly pleasant spring afternoon.
A few birders used to come out to the Lincoln Park Zoo for organized walks that I helped lead. Once in a while I would meet other birders at the Lincoln Park bird sanctuary, but the “magic hedge” near Montrose Harbor was known to only a few. If I did meet other birders there, they would be the local heavies of the pastime, people like Charlie Clark, Larry Balch, and Jerry Rosenband.
Clark had coedited the revised edition of Edward Ford’s Birds of the Chicago Region, published in 1956 by the Chicago Academy of Sciences. Balch had served a couple of terms as president of the American Birding Association. The three of them had discovered the excitement of birding on Attu, a remote Aleutian Island where all sorts of Asian strays can be found in what is indisputably part of North America. When they showed up at the magic hedge they were always in a hurry. They had 42 places to get to that day, and Montrose was only stop number 15. They did not hang around.
My friend Michael Hogg and I could bird from Montrose south to General Grant’s statue at Armitage on a day in May and accumulate a list of 80 to 90 species of birds and no birders.
The birding presence was somewhat stronger on Wooded Island in Jackson Park. In those days birding was an eccentricity, and Hyde Park harbored the right sort of eccentrics. It wasn’t too long after I started birding there that Doug Anderson of the Chicago Audubon Society began leading regular walks during spring and fall migration. The walks did have a security aspect to them. Many people felt a little nervous about visiting the island alone at 7:30 in the morning. Going there as part of a group made them more comfortable.
I call up these memories to compare them to what I have seen during the past three weekends at our top three lakefront birding areas. I led field trips to Montrose Harbor on May 2 and May 10, and I went there for my own enjoyment May 16. I also checked out the bird sanctuary on the 16th and visited Wooded Island on the 17th. None of the days provided the spectacular excitement you get with a major fallout–as we call it–of spring migrants, but they all demonstrated a change in the status of birding as an American pastime. My guess is that we have achieved the American dream: We have become a special interest group.
May 2 was one of those perfect Chicago spring days–temperature in the 40s, dense overcast, cold mist hanging in the air. On the point at Montrose clear days bring one of the great urban vistas of the world. You look south across the lake to Lincoln Park and beyond the park to the buildings of downtown and the pleasure grounds of Navy Pier. We could see none of that. We walked between gray walls that obscured everything more than 200 feet away.
I collected my shivering little group of field trippers with scant hope of showing them anything. Nonetheless we did see some birds. Black-throated green and black-and-white warblers. A sedge wren had been hanging out in a little clump of shrubs for a week, and we managed to find it. And a small flock of yellow-rumped warblers demonstrated the process of migration by briefly landing in a tree at the south end of the peninsula and then skipping from tree to tree past the magic hedge itself before disappearing to the north.
The most interesting aspect of the day was the number of birders present. Even on that foul day there were never less than about 30 people scattered around this narrow neck of land. The place had the aspect of an outdoor museum, with small groups of people clustered before various exhibits: the clump of sumacs here, the cluster of crab apples there, the honeysuckles and dogwoods of the magic hedge itself. Others were strolling between exhibits. The crowd was even bigger on May 10. It was a beautiful morning–the sky an unbroken blue, the lake deep blue in the bright sunshine, and the point itself intense green. The city was on display to the south. The only thing missing was birds. It was another typical Chicago spring day, with a cool wind out of the northeast that drives the birds away from the lakefront. We found nothing but one lovely Cape May warbler in the first half hour, so I collected my field trippers and headed inland.
The famous magic hedge was created by the birds themselves. When Montrose Point was a Nike base in the 50s and 60s a fence marked the boundary of the installation. Birds perching on that fence defecated the seeds of honeysuckles, dogwoods, and mulberries. Birds migrating parallel to the lakeshore would suddenly find themselves over this peninsula where the magic hedge was almost the only cover. They landed, and the birders recorded them. Our new status as a special interest group is revealed by signs that identify the magic hedge by name and declare the area to be a sanctuary for migrating birds. The Park District has also done a substantial amount of planting around the point. All the additional trees and shrubs have combined to make the magic hedge somewhat less of a focal point. On the other hand, there is more reason for birds to hang around after they land.
Last Saturday everybody was talking about the previous Thursday, when a warm front had moved in, bringing a great wave of birds. Things were quieter by Saturday, but we still managed some excitement. The day’s crowd included an Illinois Audubon Society field trip led by Jim Landing, who birds at Montrose nearly every day. A great cry went up from one corner of the point where people had sighted a black-billed cuckoo. Not a great rarity, but worth a quick 100-yard walk. Unfortunately the bird had disappeared into the dense foliage of a horse chestnut tree by the time I arrived.
I did catch the American bittern. These large herons are endangered in Illinois because so much of their wetland habitat has been destroyed. Their usual stance is upright, with their beaks pointed straight up. Their eyes are placed so they can see forward while in that position. Usually they stand like this among cattails or rushes, disguising themselves as just another stem. This bird was perched in a shrub, its head and neck rising above the foliage like a dead branch. When the cry “American bittern” went up, people gathered in a large circle around that shrub. Everyone kept his distance, and the bird stayed put, giving us all a long look.
The Lincoln Park bird sanctuary is a fenced-in area of a couple of acres near the totem pole at Addison. It has the general appearance of a patch of forest, although the specific mixture of trees there has probably never occurred in any natural forest. A small sliver of marsh forms the western edge, and there are two shallow pools on the eastern side, generally the best places to see birds.
The sanctuary is less subject to wild fluctuations than Montrose. The vegetation provides food and cover that can keep birds around for a few days. Last Saturday was American redstart day. These lovely warblers often seem to arrive all at once. The black-and-fiery-orange males and the brown-and-yellow females both forage through the foliage in a very active way–fanning their tails, fluttering their wings, sometimes making short dashes to capture flying insects. Rosenband says that if you can see it, it is a redstart. And that seemed to be the story on Saturday.
Birding at the sanctuary involves peering through–and over–the fence and waiting for something to show up. Patience rewarded me with good looks at chestnut-sided and Wilson’s warblers and then a brief look at a mourning warbler–a bird you don’t see every day.
Sunday at Wooded Island ended my lakefront weekend. The island, which is behind the Museum of Science and Industry, is the creation of Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Jackson Park for the World’s Columbian Exhibition in 1893. Olmsted liked working with nature. In this case he took a landscape of beach ridges separated by low swales and deepened the swales to create permanent ponds. The island is an old beach ridge, and some of its most impressive trees are giant burr oaks that were growing there when Olmsted’s crews began work.
In recent years the Park District has allowed the trees and shrubs to grow pretty much as they wish on the southern two-thirds of the island. On Wooded Island, you can’t see far, so you come across birders in small groups, not all at once the way you do at Montrose. Binoculars, in your hand or hanging around your neck, serve as credentials. With them, you can approach other birders without alarming them and talk to people without being taken for a rapist, a thief, or a schizophrenic.
Many of the birds I found on Wooded Island were signs that the migration is nearing its end. I saw female chestnut-sided and bay-breasted warblers. Among warblers, the males always arrive first, the females later. I also heard the flat “che-bek” call of the least flycatcher. My best sighting of the morning was a lovely male blackpoll warbler high in an old burr oak.