By Mel White
|National Wildlife Refuges||National Parks||Acreage of Important Bird Areas|
You might be surprised to discover that some of Illinois’ most popular birding destinations are found within the metropolis of Chicago. In fact, one small site on Lake Michigan’s shore harbors more bird species than any other destination in the state.
Beyond the city limits, a variety of wildlife refuges and state parks expand the opportunities to see the state’s more of the 420 bird species. Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge, Prairie Ridge State Natural Area, and Shawnee National Forest attract throngs of birds—and birders—in every season.
Don’t miss the annual autumn hawk watch at Illinois Beach State Park, where visitors crane their necks to see Northern Harriers, Broad-winged Hawks, and Red-shouldered Hawks on their southbound migrations. Climb a 30-foot observation tower, or go birding by canoe or kayak, at Dixon Waterfowl Refuge. Mix in some history with a visit to the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge in southern Illinois, a popular destination for migrating and wintering waterfowl that was a World War II site for munitions manufacturing before becoming a refuge.
Illinois Birding Hotspots
Somewhat amazingly, one small site on Chicago’s Lake Michigan shore has recorded well over 300 species of birds, the highest total for any location in Illinois. Perhaps the word that should be used is “magic,” because there’s one area of trees and shrubs here that’s come to be called the “Magic Hedge” for its ability to attract birds.
Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary is best visited in spring and fall for migrant songbirds and from fall through spring for waterfowl, loons, grebes, gulls, and other waterbirds. A visit here at the height of migration is a social occasion, with many birders from the Chicago area milling around and exchanging news of sightings. The beach can be good for shorebirds (more than 35 species have been recorded) and the pier provides a lookout point for whatever is swimming in or flying over the lake.
A very small sampling of rarities recorded here over the years include Magnificent Frigatebird, Black Rail, Purple Gallinule, Wandering Tattler, Black-tailed Gull, Groove-billed Ani, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Townsend’s Solitaire, Grace’s Warbler, and Painted Bunting. Of course, absolutely none of those can be expected on any single visit, but the list highlights the special nature of Montrose Point.
Scoters Red-throated Loon, Thayer’s Gull, Iceland Gull, and Glaucous Gull are seen with some regularity in winter.
Because of the popularity of this site with birders, it’s important to be mindful not to disturb the wildlife.
Stretching for miles along the Lake Michigan shoreline at the Wisconsin border, Illinois Beach State Park is a favorite of regional birders for its diversity of habitat, with forest, marshy areas, beach, dunes, and views over the lake. Nearly 300 species have been found here, with birding good throughout the year but especially productive in migration.
The South Unit of the park features trails through the various habitats; pick up a map at the nature center. On a spring day after a weather front with north winds the trees and shrubs can be alive with songbirds. In winter scan the lake for ducks, loons, grebes, and gulls. In spring and fall the beach can host a variety of shorebirds. Nesting birds in the park include Eastern Whip-poor-will, Red-headed Woodpecker, Willow Flycatcher, Marsh Wren, Yellow-throated Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, Grasshopper Sparrow, and Brewer’s Blackbird.
The North Unit of the park is also good for general land and lake birding but is especially known for its annual hawk watch. Observers watch the skies from September through November from a pavilion east of Sand Pond. The most common species include Osprey, Northern Harrier, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, Merlin, and Peregrine Falcon, with smaller numbers of Golden Eagle and Northern Goshawk, plus occasional rarities. Visitors are always welcome at the hawk watch.
This area five miles south of Newton provides habitat for several grassland species, particularly for Greater Prairie-Chicken, a bird almost extirpated in Illinois. Other birds found here include Northern Bobwhite, American Bittern, Northern Harrier, Rough-legged Hawk (winter), King Rail, Short-eared Owl, American Kestrel, Loggerhead Shrike, Dickcissel, Grasshopper Sparrow, and Henslow’s Sparrow. Lapland Longspur winters, and Smith’s Longspur (scarce) and Bobolink appear in migration.
Although birding is allowed only from roadsides, there is plenty to see from your car window. At one designated viewing area, from late March to mid-April, you may have the chance to witness male prairie-chickens performing their dramatic mating displays.
A mile south, the Illinois Audubon Society’s Robert Ridgway Grasslands Nature Preserve offers an interpretive trail and a viewing platform overlooking a wetland area. Virginia Rail and Sora are found regularly here.
Located about 40 miles north of Peoria, this refuge began as an ecological restoration project in 2001, turning farmland in the Illinois River floodplain back into wetlands. Since then it has accumulated a bird list of more than 270 species and has been named a Wetland of International Importance and an Audubon Important Bird Area.
A 30-foot observation tower and four miles of trails invite visitors to this 3,000-acre tract, which encompasses lakes, marshland, grassland, and oak savannahs. While waterfowl can be abundant here, especially in spring and fall, the refuge hosts much more than geese and ducks.
Among the summer visitors are Double-crested Cormorant, American White Pelican, American Bittern, Least Bittern, Black-cowned Night-Heron, Bald Eagle, Virginia Rail, Sora, Common Gallinule, Caspian Tern, Black Tern, Red-headed Woodpecker, Willow Flycatcher, Sedge Wren, Marsh Wren, Grasshopper Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, Dickcissel, and Yellow-headed Blackbird.
From fall through spring you might find Greater White-fronted Goose, Trumpeter Swan, Tundra Swan, Northern Harrier, Short-eared Owl (scarce), and a variety of sparrows.
Canoeing and kayaking are allowed on lakes here from May 1 through September 30.
At 26,000 acres, Carlyle Lake is the largest reservoir in Illinois. Such a vast expanse of water in a largely agricultural landscape attracts not only the usual waterfowl and migrant gulls but also rarities. The lake is monitored by dedicated birders—many of them from the St. Louis area, 45 miles west—providing regular alerts about the latest sightings.
Two state parks, Eldon Hazlet on the west and South Shore on the east, provide some of the many viewpoints for scanning the lake, as do the dam and Coles Creek Recreation Area on the east. A state fish and wildlife area in the north is the place to look for geese and shorebirds.
Five species of geese, 24 species of ducks, four species of grebes, 31 species of shorebirds, and 17 species of gulls have been recorded at Carlyle Lake. Of these, the lake is probably best known for unusual gulls, including Sabine’s, Laughing, Lesser Black-backed, Iceland, and Glaucous—and, even rarer, Black-legged Kittiwake, Little, Black-tailed, Slaty-backed, and Glaucous-winged.
American White Pelican, Osprey, Bald Eagle, and Rough-legged Hawk (winter) are among other species found on and around the lake.
This site 17 miles southwest of Joliet protects some of the best tallgrass prairie remaining in Illinois. The grassland ecosystem and adjacent marshy wetlands host an array of nesting and wintering bird species.
The visitor center offers an introductory video and an observation deck, as well as a map of the trail system. One trail loop is handicapped accessible.
Among the special breeding birds at Goose Lake Prairie are Northern Bobwhite, American Bittern, Least Bittern, Northern Harrier, King Rail, Virginia Rail, Sora, Sandhill Crane, Wilson’s Snipe, Willow Flycatcher, Bell’s Vireo, Warbling Vireo, Sedge Wren, Marsh Wren, Yellow-breasted Chat, Grasshopper Sparrow, Henslow’s Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, Dickcissel, and Bobolink. That list certainly warrants a spring or summer trip.
In winter, the site can be home to an assortment of ducks, Bald Eagle, Rough-legged Hawk, Short-eared Owl, and an occasional Northern Shrike.
This refuge southwest of Peoria hosts enormous flocks of waterfowl in spring and fall migration. Levees allow manipulation of the water level in impoundments, to provide the right food and water depth to attract shorebirds in late summer as well as geese and ducks in migration. A bird list of more than 260 shows the birding potential of the refuge.
In addition to abundant species such as Canada Goose, Mallard, Northern Pintail, and Green-winged Teal, Chautauqua is a good place to find Greater White-fronted Goose, Cackling Goose, Trumpeter Swan, Tundra Swan, American Black Duck, Hooded Merganser, and Common Merganser.
The refuge is one of the best places in the state to find shorebirds, with May and (especially) August the peak times. Approximately 35 species have been recorded, including Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Willet (scarce), Hudsonian Godwit, Marbled Godwit, Baird’s Sandpiper, Wilson’s Phalarope, and Red-necked Phalarope. Wading birds peak in August, as well. Bonaparte’s Gull, Franklin’s Gull, and Herring Gull are seen regularly in addition to the common Ring-billed Gull. To look for water birds, check the headquarters area, the Cross Dike and, in the northern section, the dike at Goofy Ridge.
Other summering birds on the refuge include American White Pelican, Bald Eagle, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Red-headed Woodpecker, Horned Lark, and Dickcissel. In migration or winter look for Osprey, Northern Harrier, Sora, and Peregrine Falcon. Eurasian Tree Sparrow is regular here.
An excellent all-around birding area, Crab Orchard is located in southern Illinois near Carbondale and Marion. The 44,000-acre refuge centers on 7,000-acre Crab Orchard Lake and includes two smaller lakes, Little Grassy Lake and Devil’s Kitchen Lake. Some of the land here was used in World War II to manufacture munitions before being dedicated as a refuge.
Crab Orchard’s size and various units make a map a necessity. Information is available at the visitor center on Highway 148. An auto tour route begins on the other side of the highway.
Like many national wildlife refuges, Crab Orchard is known for migrant and wintering waterfowl, especially large flocks of Canada Geese. The refuge hosts around a half-dozen Bald Eagle nests, some easily visible from roads. In addition to its lakes, more than half the refuge is forest, mostly oak-hickory hardwoods but also some pine plantations. Add grassland and shallow wetlands, and the result is varied habitats with more than 250 bird species.
Around Crab Orchard Lake, some of the favorite birding locations are the trail and pond at the visitor center, the five other refuge hiking trails, the Wolf Creek causeway, and several observation towers located around the area. Nesting birds on the refuge include Northern Bobwhite, Wild Turkey, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Fish Crow, Eastern Bluebird, Prothonotary Warbler, Pine Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, and Dickcissel.
Just ten miles from St. Louis, Horseshoe Lake is an oxbow of the Mississippi River that ranks among the best birding locations in the region. Nearly 300 species have been recorded here, with waterfowl, wading birds, shorebirds, and gulls the highlights. The lake’s proximity to the Mississippi River, a natural flight corridor, means that it attracts more than its share of rarities.
In addition to the commoner geese and ducks, Horseshoe Lake has hosted Trumpeter Swan, Cinnamon Teal, Surf Scoter, and Long-tailed Duck. Its list of more than 15 gull species includes Sabine’s Gull, Little Gull, and Iceland Gull, among other rarities.
In summer some of the wetland areas here are “dewatered” to grow plants that feed waterfowl. When the appearance of mudflats coincides with shorebird migration, it can create excellent birding, with more than 30 shorebird species recorded. Early to mid-August is usually the peak period. The water drawdown creates great conditions for wading birds, too.
With bald cypress, tupelo, and cottonwood trees ringing it, Horseshoe Lake resembles a habitat from farther south, especially when Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, and Little Blue Herons prowl the shoreline and Prothonotary Warblers flit in the trees.
At the state park on Highway 111, roads border part of the lakeshore and a causeway leads to Walker’s Island, which has hiking trails. This site is also known as a place to find the introduced and limited-range Eurasian Tree Sparrow.
Located in the southernmost region of Illinois, less than 10 miles from the Ohio River, this remarkable natural area protects a lush landscape created by meanderings of the river over countless millennia. The wetlands here are shaded by bald cypress and tupelo trees, giving the appearance of a Deep South swamp. Some of the bald cypresses are hundreds of years old.
In part reflecting this southern orientation, some of the nesting birds in the natural area are Wood Duck, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Black Vulture, Mississippi Kite, Red-shouldered Hawk, Barred Owl, Red-headed Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Acadian Flycatcher, Louisiana Waterthrush, Prothonotary Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, Cerulean Warbler (scarce), Northern Parula, Yellow-throated Warbler, and Summer Tanager. Migration brings waterfowl and waders to the area.
A nature center, open Wednesday through Sunday, is located on Highway 37 northwest of the town of Karnak. Here visitors can learn of the various ways to explore the area, including hiking trails and canoe trails.
One popular spot is the trail at Heron Pond, a 1.5-mile walk with a boardwalk into a cypress-tupelo swamp. Another good birding hike is the Little Black Slough Trail, which can be accessed from Wildcat Bluff as well as from Heron Pond.
Chicago was not founded by birders, but it could have been. Here, where the eastern forest meets the prairies and the Great Lakes, is the heart of an exciting territory for naturalists. This regional trail, sponsored by the City of Chicago, the Bird Conservation Network, and Chicago Wilderness, leads to 58 of the best birding sites in the seven Illinois counties surrounding the city and in two counties in northwest Indiana. On native prairies in summer, rare Henslow’s sparrows sing their flat hiccups, while meadowlarks and bobolinks deliver more melodious tunes. Forest preserves host flashy treetop birds like rose-breasted grosbeaks and scarlet tanagers in summer, while remnant marshes still support nesting herons, ducks, and all sorts of water birds. During spring and fall migration, gulls, hawks, and other migrants sweep along Lake Michigan’s shoreline when the winds are right. But birders in the know may follow the guide to downtown Chicago, where, in the shadows of skyscrapers, parks along the lakefront provide stopover habitat for thousands of migrant travelers, including everything from blackburnian warblers to Virginia rails. —Kenn Kaufman