In a built-up city like Chicago, you could argue the transition between seasons brings only so much change to the urban scenery.
But what does change drastically from summer to winter are the birds that make the city their home.
“Birds — more than any other organism — really mark [the seasonal changes] visibly and auditorily for people in a way that no other aspect of life does,” says Edward Warden, president of the Chicago Ornithological Society.
Migration patterns bring all kinds of birds to Chicago for short and long periods. In the spring, you’ll find indigo buntings and all sorts of warblers. August is an excellent time to see shore birds before they head south.
Those birds bring birdwatchers — birders — often to familiar birding spots, such as Illinois Beach State Park in Zion and the North Park Village Nature Center. The Chicago Audubon Society keeps a list of favorite places.
We’ve put together a few unexpected birding spots — and approaches.
1. Don’t underestimate the view from your window
When Uptown resident Mia Park moved to her current apartment building, the rules were strict: nothing hanging from the windows, which meant no bird feeders.
But Park — who loves birding at the nearby Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary — discovered a workaround that would bring birds right to her window.
“I keep this plant by the window so that the birds think there is nature on the inside,” she says. “I take a scoop of bird seed — I actually like to pour [it] as close to … where the window is because they hop up there, and I can see them better.”
So many birds now gather outside her living room window to eat bird seed that Park says she has to keep her bedroom door closed at night, or the birdsong wakes her around five in the morning.
“Just having this little magic of a brown bird coming to sit on my windowsill to eat, it feels timeless,” she says. “You can be in this city with millions of people and noisy garbage trucks … but one little brown bird coming to my windowsill to eat feels like it balances all that.”
2. Try birding at night
Edward Warden is president of the Chicago Ornithological Society and co-founder of the Chicago Nighthawk Project, which works with volunteers to count nighthawks around Chicago and to figure out ways to conserve their numbers.
When Warden and other volunteers go looking for nighthawks on summer evenings, they’re often going to places you might not expect, like Little League fields.
This story originally appeared on WBEZ’s Curious City, a podcast that answers questions about Chicago and the region.
“If you’re actively hunting for nighthawks, go to the light,” he says. “Anywhere where there are really large flood lights like ballfields or public parks or gaming areas because you’ll see insects gathering and potentially nighthawks going after those gathering insects.”
Warden says nighthawks can be identified by the white stripes on the bottom of their wings and the shape of their mouths.
“They have these enormous mouths,” he says. “I mean, a ridiculously Muppet-like mouth.”
3. Check out this Costco retention pond
According to Bob Fisher, communications coordinator for the Bird Conservation Network, the retention pond next to the Costco in Orland Park is a great space for birding.
“You wouldn’t normally say, ‘Let’s go to the Costco to go birding,’ but it works for certain types of birds, particularly because of these retention ponds,” Fisher says. “You’ve got a habitat that they can use.”
He has seen birds like gallinules, wood ducks and herons at that retention pond, and he suggests checking out any similar spot near you.
Fisher sees these kinds of unexpected habitats as opportunities to engage companies in bird conservation.
“We can go to Costco and say, ‘OK … we’ve got a fair amount of data that shows that this is … providing a nesting habitat for a variety of birds. How can we work with you to make sure that’s still true 10 years from now?’ ”
4. Use an app like eBird Mobile or Merlin
For novice birdwatchers, Merlin is a useful app, helping identify birds by uploading photos or bird song recordings — or through a series of questions about their location, size, color and behavior. It also lets you keep track of birds you’ve spotted.
eBird Mobile is basically a database of user-uploaded checklists of the types and numbers of birds that people have spotted in the wild. It’s a way you can keep track of the birds you’ve seen while allowing scientists and researchers access to that data through eBird, the global database it’s connected to. eBird Mobile is also a great way to discover potentially surprising or underbirded spots in an area, using its interactive map.
5. Treat birding as a way of life
Jorge Garcia started birding in 2020 after getting into bird illustration and photography.
Garcia says he usually hears birds before he sees them, and at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic — with far fewer cars on the road — birdsong became a lot easier to hear.
“If I’m passing through [a neighborhood or park], I’ll make a pit stop and take 15 minutes,” says Garcia, who lives in Avondale and goes birding all around the city. “It slows down my day, but it’s worth it, and it’s a lot of fun for me.”
Garcia also leads bird walks and is an active member of the BIPOC Birders Slack group, whose mMembers post sightings and projects and offer a welcoming space for birders of color.
“I kind of realized that being a brown person who is birding and walking around, sometimes that might be contentious, and I’ve certainly had my moments of that,” he says. “But maybe that’s enough reason to keep doing it because maybe I can inspire others to take it up.”
6. Take a cemetery stroll
Journalist Robert Loerzel is constantly posting photos of wildlife in the Chicago area. Cemeteries, including Graceland Cemetery, are some of his favorite locations to spot birds.
“Birds love the green space in graveyards, especially bigger places like Graceland Cemetery,” Loerzel says. “I often see hawks prowling Graceland, and I’ve even witnessed Cooper’s hawks engaged in aerial combat with crows.
“Herons sometimes stalk the cemetery’s pond, including a great blue heron I saw on the island where architect Daniel Burnham is buried. And look for migratory birds in the prairie at Graceland’s southeast corner, where I’ve seen palm warblers and eastern bluebirds.”
7. See cliff swallows at the 63rd Street beach house
Cliff swallows build their nests under cliffs, bridges, building eaves — anywhere a vertical wall meets a horizontal overhang.
You often find them darting in and out of their nests at places like the underpass beneath Humboldt Park Drive in Humboldt Park and the 63rd Street beach house.
“63rd Street is a great place to bird in general, from the little dune area to the wooded parklands and Jackson Harbor,” birder Bob Dolgan says. “Once spring migration has passed, swallow species are fairly common and easy to find north and south along the lakefront. There are plenty of barn swallows, rough-winged swallows, tree swallows, purple martins and even bank swallows.
“But cliff swallows are a little harder to find. They’ve found a haven at the historic 63rd Street beach house, where they nest in the eaves and under a portico on the east side.”
8. Check out ‘underbirded’ parks
The North Side is home to popular birding locations like the Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary and North Pond Nature Sanctuary. South Side spots like Big Marsh Park in South Deering are equally great and often overlooked.
Big Marsh Park is a wetland near the Indiana border. Woody Goss, a board member of the Chicago Audubon Society, likes to go birding there. Late summer in particular, he says, is a great time to spot sandpipers, egrets, green herons and eagles.
“The exciting migrants are the shore birds right now in Chicago,” Goss says. “Shore birds you either see on the lakefront, and you have to get there before anyone else, or they get scared away … or you can go to a small handful of places that have the right water level, and this is one of those places.”
Other South Side locales for birding include the South Shore Nature Sanctuary, where more than 180 bird species have been spotted, according to eBird, Washington Park, where WBEZ Curious City listeners say they’ve seen wood ducks, Baltimore orioles, kingfishers and many types of herons, and Pullman, where birds have been seen including monk parakeets, which have made a home all over the South Side.