Birdwatching in Chicago
Birdwatchers—or birders, as they’re called—love to follow the calls and sightings of feathered friends around Chicago. Here are some of their favorite spots to see a variety of species year-round.
Morning is best for watching birds because they’re more active then and usually the most vocal. Bring a field guide to help with identification.
Located south of the Adler Planetarium, 12th Street Beach and Huntington Bank Pavilion on Chicago’s lakefront, Northerly Island is a 91-acre man-made peninsula. It was envisioned in 1909 by famed architect Daniel Burnham as the northernmost point in his lakefront plan, which called for lagoons, harbors, beaches and playfields.
But construction was stalled by the Great Depression and World War II. In 1946, Merrill C. Meigs Field Airport won out over a proposal to host the United Nations, and the Works Progress Administration connected the peninsula to the Campus mainland with a causeway. A 40-acre park opened on the southern half of the island in 2015, with strolling paths, casual play areas and views of the City skyline and Lake Michigan. In 2010, the Park District enlisted Studio Gang and SmithGroupJJR to design a more ambitious master plan, which includes an array of paths, wetlands, barrier islands, and landscaped biomes featuring different flora. The work will reclaim the land to resemble Burnham’s original vision and provide habitat for local bird species.
The Lakefront Trail is one of the city’s best birding spots. It stretches for 18.5 miles and offers beautiful views of the lake on one side and green areas on the other. It’s a great place to walk, run or ride your bike. Just remember that it’s a shared path, so be courteous to other users. This means slowing down in some sections, dismounting as directed at certain underpasses and obeying the laws when crossing traffic at the entrance to some parks.
This trail is positioned in the heart of one of North America’s main migratory flyways. Many birds use it to rest and refuel on their way to their winter homes. It’s also a popular destination for locals who enjoy scenic walks, exercise or simply taking in the breathtaking views of the Chicago skyline and the sparkling blue water of Lake Michigan. The best time to visit is in the early morning when the light stirs up the bugs and makes resting birds active.
Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary
Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary, also known as the Magic Hedge, is a 15-acre expanse of fields, hedgerows, scattered trees and thickets that attract more than 300 different species of birds. It’s a birding destination that’s a great place to watch for elusive treetop dwellers like groove-billed ani and Say’s phoebe, as well as for raptors soaring overhead.
The habitat is mostly made up of invasive shrubs like bush honeysuckle and serviceberry, but since the site was used for military purposes in the mid-20th century, the Army planted these plants to screen its barracks from the public. After the land was reclaimed by the Chicago Park District, volunteers planted native species to make the spot more natural.
Located along the Mississippi and Atlantic flyways, the Great Lakes region is important for migratory birds. The Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary, Jackson Park, Humboldt Park and Lake Calumet are all good places to observe birds during spring migration. The city’s wetlands and other grasslands provide shelter, while forests and lakes offer rest stops on the long journey between the northern and southern hemispheres.
Birds aren’t just fun to watch, they’re a key indicator of a healthy ecosystem. That’s why the Forest Preserves is working to promote the activity with #BirdThePreserves, a community-supported initiative.
Birding has become so popular that the Forest Preserves now hosts dozens of Ecological Stewardship Days, where people help out by performing hands-on restoration work. And the community’s interest in birds isn’t slowing down, with eBird users logging sightings across the globe at record rates during the 2021 Global Big Day.
Antonio Flores, a program and communications manager at the Chicago Audubon Society, says he’s seeing more and more people get into the hobby. He recommends starting out by visiting the city’s birding hot spots. For example, he suggests going to Big Marsh Park in the South Side, where WBEZ Curious City listeners have reported seeing sandpipers and green herons. The park is also home to a wetland and wooded habitats that attract migrants. And it’s easy to get there by transit.