In this neck of the woods, a “spark bird” – one animal that triggers a lifelong passion for birding – could look like anything from a dark-eyed junco’s signature black hood to a ruby- crowned kinglet’s scarlet spikes.
In program chair Libby Hill’s experience at the Evanston North Shore Bird Club (ENSBC), the marmalade hues of the Blackburnian Warbler remind people that beauty is a thing with feathers. Any unsuspecting passerby strolling along the lake could be struck by a “spark bird” – even you.
If you do catch the “birding flu,” you’re in luck. The Clark Street Beach Bird Sanctuary butts up against the southernmost end of Northwestern’s campus, fenced in but in easy eyeshot. Binoculars are all you need, and even those are optional. To an untrained eye, though, a lot of the avian wildlife can fly right by. Hill recommends joining one of ENSBC’s Saturday morning bird walks on campus, led by experienced volunteers.
To get involved with an ENSBC bird walk, meet up with volunteer guides in the Segal Visitors Center parking lot on Saturday mornings at 8:30 a.m. Sign-in is requested, but not mandatory.
Two hundred sixty-eight species have been documented on campus; the characteristic mohawk of the red-breasted merganser makes an appearance, as does the bright blue eye of the double-crested cormorant.
Too many run-ins with campus geese for your liking? Head toward downtown Evanston. There, you can find the peregrine falcons that have made their home at the Evanston Public Library from March through June for the past 14 years. The Falcon Cam on the library’s website offers a live streamed birds’-eye view of the nest.
To see the falcons for yourself, head toward the intersection of Orrington Avenue and Church Street, near the public library. Keep your eyes on the hollow pillars along the front of the building, where the pair have made their nest.
Peregrine falcons fly among us, as do snowy owls à la Hogwarts (along the lakefront) and bald eagles – as many as 14 near the South Side’s Lake Calumet. Avid birder Justin Breen once covered this “bird beat” for the online newspaper DNAInfo, but today he enjoys the urban wildlife in and around his North Shore home.
“What I still appreciate now is just how incredible the wildlife is within a giant city like this,” Breen says. “And I really wish more people would think about that, because you really can see life cycle through – with birds especially – as the [seasons] change.”
The shift between seasons is the best time to witness migratory birds traveling North from as far as South America. They trace the Lake Michigan shoreline as a guide, and often pause at Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary, near Uptown.
Here, flocks of observers witness the “Magic Hedge” of Montrose Point unfold into an avian hotspot. The shrubbery on the western edge of the sanctuary fills with rare birds like Kirtland’s warbler, with its lemon underbelly.
If spring weather cooperates, Montrose Point is a 45-minute bike ride south from Norris – about eight miles down the lakeshore.
This peninsular park swells with more than 300 avian species, and come springtime, seeing more than 100 species in one day is a frequent occurrence. Yet, sometimes there seems to be as many birders as birds: a living field guide of amateur experts to consult.
Men and women in camouflage with cameras and binoculars trickle down the park’s paths. They’re mostly solitary, and the only real sounds are tweets and chirps as the crisp Chicago skyline looms in the background. Look where they look, and Le Conte’s Sparrow’s understated speckles or the downy woodpecker’s familiar scarlet cap will emerge from the foliage.
A mother guides her two young children through the prairie. Montrose is the perfect place to escape urban life for a walk on the wild side, even though it lies within Chicago city limits. “If you just give nature any little bit of chance,” Breen says, “it will survive and many times thrive.” That it will continue to do. Take advantage of it: birding is not strictly for the birds.