(Above) A Blue-winged Warbler, visiting the South Loop, photographed by Carl Giometti. (Click on the image to enlarge.)
Collisions are common, with glass buildings on migration routes.
7 March 22 – You don’t have to travel far to bird watch in Chicago. There are birds everywhere, according to Judith Pollockpresident of the Chicago Audubon Society, even in dense neighborhoods like Streeterville and the Loop.
Its unique geography makes Chicago a great place for birdwatching – and sadly, bird-collision.
Birds tend to migrate at night, sailing by the stars. Many end up stranded above the lake, so they land on the shore. As a result, says Pollack, “you have this migration show [that] is just phenomenal. Chicago is one of the best places to connect to this.
Olive Park, near the sewage treatment plant, and Grant Park, she says, are “phenomenal places to see birds.”
Even small pockets of trees make a big difference to birds flying up to 300 miles overnight, says Christine Williamsonchairman of the conservation committee of the Chicago Ornithological Society.
Carl Giomettia South Loop resident says “any patch of greenery will do” to find birds.
A popular spot, he says, is the tree-lined plaza east of Trump Tower (left) on the north side of the Chicago River. He says a fellow birder has seen more than 75 birds in this area over the years.
Lurie Garden is also a key bird spot, according to Giometti. And Williamson saw robins eating berries from planters in the middle of Michigan Avenue.
Bird strikes, unfortunately, are common downtown.
“Some of these birds might not make it out alive from that area because of all the glass buildings there,” Giometti says.
Best time in spring for bird watching
In early spring, from March to May, you should see waterfowl and early migrants arrive, Pollock says, such as red-winged blackbirds and eastern meadowlarks. Spring is the perfect time to check for birds, as the leaves haven’t fully grown. But the birds can be seen all year round; in February, many merganserlarge fish-eating ducks, can be seen on Lake Michigan.
Giometti says that in April and May he brings his binoculars to work just in case. Sometimes unusual and rare birds can be found downtown. In 2019, Giometti found a Kirtland warbler, which had previously been listed as an endangered species, near the statue of Lincoln in Grant Park.
The warbler has very specific breeding grounds – jack pines in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ontario – and only one or two are usually seen in the Chicago area. When Giometti confirmed he saw a Kirtland warbler, he says other ornithologists working in the Loop ran from their offices to see it.
Trees aren’t the only places to see birds. You should look for birds at different levels, including the ground, in shrubs, at eye level and in the canopy, Williamson noted. Or overhead, to possibly spot seagulls or even peregrine falcons hanging around downtown.
Many large clubs like the Chicago Ornithological Society or the Chicago Audubon Society offer classes and walks where beginners can learn from more advanced birders.
Pollock recommends Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Merlin Bird ID, which can help identify birds, and eBird, which has data on hotspots and the types of birds that have been seen in a given area.
According to Giometti, “Just because you live in downtown Chicago doesn’t mean there aren’t incredible nature sights to behold right outside your window.”