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Transitory beauty of Lurie Garden: A May Morning with birders

Jeff Walk, in blue in back pointing, led a lively walk for urbon birds on a May morning.
Credit: Dale Bowman

To birders gathered on a beautiful May morning near Monroe and Columbus in downtown Chicago, Jeff Walk said, “We use the point-and-shout method, `What’s that?’ ”

Point-and-shout method of birding Lurie Garden on a beautiful May morning.<br>Credit: Dale Bowman
Point-and-shout method of birding Lurie Garden on a beautiful May morning.
Credit: Dale Bowman

I double chuckled because I suspected commuters scuttling across the sidewalks thought about pointing and shouting, “What’s that?” at the knot of folks with binoculars peering into prairie plantings, tulips, trees and shrubbery.

Walk, director of science for The Nature Conservancy in Illinois, and Karen Taira, program manager at Lurie Garden, led the “Morning Bird and Nature Walk’’ in Lurie Garden and Millennium Park.

There’s good reason for the spring and fall walks.

“Migratory birds are so concentrated here,” Walk said. “I see four to five times more here than down in Peoria.”

The lakefront draws them. Mixed with the skyscrapers downtown that is sometimes a deadly combination.

But Lurie Garden, 2.5 acres of prairie and other plantings on the southern edge of Millennium Park, is a place of rest.

As he waited on the rest of us, Walk counted 80 white-throated sparrows under the shrubbery.

The beauty of Lurie Garden on a May morning as an urban wild space.<br>Credit: Dale Bowman
The beauty of Lurie Garden on a May morning as an urban wild space.
Credit: Dale Bowman

When Lurie Garden started, I thought it was a waste of good wild urban space. But it has grown on me. I often circle through. For years I covered the Shamrock Shuffle for the Sun-Times. As thousands of runners clotted on Columbus, I would savor dozens of red-winged blackbirds, or “ubiquitous red-winged blackbirds” as Walk put it, trilling yards away.

Laura Ekasetya, horticulturist for Lurie Garden, gave a primer on the plantings, notably prairie smoke and shooting star.

First notable bird was a Townsend’s warbler, a western species rare for May.

“In urban areas, birds basically ignore the people,” Walk noted.

He pointed out a red-wing on a redbud tree, a grackle on a light stand and a robin, then said, “If we had a starling, we would have 80 percent of the birds in Illinois.”

Then it was a yellow warbler, “most yellow of songbirds.”

Both Taira–“With beginning birders, we teach them to use the zig-zag method, if you see one”–and Walk–“First, I don’t see most; I use my ears; I look for movement”–gave birding basics.

My claim to fame for the walk came when I spotted a male northern cardinal (state bird) flying toward Monroe. Some one spotted a winter wren. Then a house finch.

Lurie Garden is divided into “dark plate” and “light plate,” based on shading. The tulip design came in 2008 by Jacqueline van der Kloet. I am amused that fame may come from tulip design. But I digress. Ekasetya pointed out grape hyacinth and wild indigo.

A flock of blue jays flew in the from the north. A lone crow passed. Walk said they “look like they are swimming through the air,” a description I wish I had thought of before.

What would an urban birding be without a pigeon.<br>Credit: Dale Bowman
What would an urban birding be without a pigeon.
Credit: Dale Bowman

My best bird photo came of a city pigeon (rock pigeon?) on a park bench.

More notable were a Swainson’s thrush and a marsh wren.

A northern flicker was spotted, which led Ekasetya to say, “We don’t do a good job of incorporating [dead wood] into our landscapes.”

Even I was able to spot a tiny ruby-crowned kinglet.

That led to more birding advice from Walk–“Smaller magnifications are better in forests; larger magnifications for prairies“— and Taira–“Keep your eye on the bird and raise the binoculars.”

A possible Nashville warbler brought a buzz as the walk neared its end near the north entrance of The Art Institute of Chicago.

It was time.

Before I left, a palm warbler showed.

A red bud contrasted against the Chicago skyline on a fine May morning for an urban bird walk.<br>Credit: Dale Bowman
A red bud contrasted against the Chicago skyline on a fine May morning for an urban bird walk.
Credit: Dale Bowman