You may have heard or even noticed that the water level on Lake Michigan is very high this summer. According to NOAA, it’s at a 22 year high and near the all-time high. I took this photo at the mouth of Montrose Harbor in July 2020. The water is so high it’s spilling over the piers at the harbor mouth. In past years fishermen would be using these piers; the only creatures using the piers now are waterfowl and gulls.
The fish in Montrose Harbor are taking advantage of the decrease in human activity and putting on a show. I’ve been checking the north side of the harbor on my morning walks and I’ve noticed an abundance and variety of fish I didn’t notice before Chicago closed the lakefront parks. Some of the different species include Black Crappie (a Montrose first for me), numbers of Smallmouth Bass and Freshwater Drum, and the ever-present Common Carp. Some of the carp are huge. I’ve also seen large schools of smaller fish, either Alewife or Smelt. It’s noteworthy that Montrose Harbor is far from being a pristine body of water. The many boats release gasoline into the water and there’s often garbage floating on the surface and debris in the water. Despite this, aquatic life is thriving.
Who needs the aquarium?
On June 22 the city reopened the Chicago lakefront trails after being closed for 3 months. The lakefront trails are the paths in the lakefront parks for running, walking, and bike riding. The trails extend out to and through Montrose Point, so accessing the Point is possible, but only on foot or by bike (parking is not allowed at this time). Note that activities such as picnicking, going to the beach, playing sports, and gathering in groups are prohibited.
I live about a mile from Montrose and I started walking there when the trails reopened. The park looks very different from when I last visited in late March – a lot greener, with many fewer people, and an even higher Lake Michigan. Breeding season is in full swing with lots of begging immature birds around. Monty and Rose, the pair of Piping Plovers that nested at Montrose in 2019, have returned and are raising a family again in the Dunes. As of this writing, they have 3 ping pong ball-sized downy young. The male Red-winged Blackbirds are in attack mode and sparing no one. The first southbound shorebirds are starting to appear, signaling the beginning of migration.
If you want to visit Montrose you’ll have to walk in until the park fully reopens. I don’t know when this will be. People have been parking west of Lake Shore Drive and walking in, not very convenient but the only option available now. I’ve included a link to one of my eBird lists from a recent visit, URL below. Also, check the Montrose Point eBird Hotspot to find out what’s being seen there.
June 29, 2020
When the city closed Montrose Point to limit the spread of COVID-19 I had to find an alternate place to go birding. Graceland Cemetery is within walking distance of my home and that’s where I went for my local birding fix this spring. I birded Graceland once in the past, forgot about it, and never really considered going there again. The Chicago lakefront park closures changed that.
Graceland Cemetery is on the north side of Chicago, just north of Wrigley Field. It’s 121 acres and extends from Irving Park Road on the south to Montrose Avenue on the north and from Clark Street on the west to the elevated train tracks on the east. If you’ve driven east on Irving Park past Clark Street you’ve probably seen it. This Google Map shows the road system around Graceland.
Birds, Birding, and Other Critters
From late March when I started to early June I tallied 105 species. My best day was May 15 with 72 species in about 3 hours. As of early June, the eBird total for Graceland is a respectable 174 species. Graceland proved to be excellent for warblers, vireos, flycatchers, and other arboreal passerines, which isn’t surprising given the many tall deciduous trees on the property. Overall habitat diversity is low, however, which limits avian diversity, especially for waterbirds. Lake Willowmere is the only body of water and it’s too small to attract most waterfowl and other water associating birds. One aspect I liked is how open the cemetery is, which made scanning the skies and looking for flyovers easy.
Graceland’s most famous animal residents are the family of Coyotes that call it home. I saw them on most of my visits and they became the subject of conversations I would have with other birders and even non-birders. They were hard to miss and showed a casualness towards people, a sign they’ve become acclimated to us. They brightened my visits and sometimes gave me a start when they got too close.
It’s an Arboretum Too
Graceland is also an arboretum with over 50 species of trees. Many of the common ornamental trees that line Chicago streets grow on the property (e.g., Silver and Norway Maples, American Elms, and Honey Locusts), and I found other more exotic species like English Oak. These trees give Graceland a beautiful, open park-like atmosphere. They’re also why it’s so attractive to warblers and other tree-loving passerines during migration.
In the End, It’s a Cemetery
When most Chicagoans think of Graceland they probably think of the many famous people buried there. The cemetery hosts a number of movers and shakers from our history, businessmen like Potter Palmer, former Chicago mayor Carter Harrison, architect Mies Van Der Rohe, and artist Ed Paschke, to name a few. To my mind, the most notable resident is Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion of the world. You may have seen the Ken Burns documentary about him, “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson”. Johnson became a lightning rod for white hatred when he won the boxing championship and also for aspects of his personal life.
Losing access to Montrose was a bitter pill to swallow. I’ve birded there for almost 40 years and I’ve never missed an entire May migration until this year. Having Graceland took some of the sting out of that loss. It also gave me a chance to explore an underbirded site in Chicago. Graceland is a wonderful place to wander around and look at things. A big thanks and shoutout to Graceland Cemetery management for keeping it open to the public during the COVID-19 crisis.
Official Graceland Cemetery Website
Graceland Cemetery eBird Hotspot
May 15, 2020 Graceland Cemetery eBird Checklist
Google Map of Graceland Cemetery
Graceland Cemetery Google Map
On March 26, 2020, the city of Chicago closed all of Lincoln Park, including Montrose Point, to the public to limit the spread of COVID-19. It’s unclear how long Montrose will be closed. It could be weeks, it could be months. DO NOT attempt to access Montrose (or any other part of Lincoln Park) while it is closed – you could be fined or even arrested.
March 26 saw an influx of migrants, most notably American Robins, blackbirds, and several types of sparrows. There were also good numbers of ducks on Lake Michigan, particularly Red-breasted Mergansers, and a few ducks moving north. This happens every spring when we get warm fronts and south winds. I tallied 46 species in a little less than 2 hours of effort, including a number of first of seasons. My highlights
Blue-winged Teal – 11
Northern Shoveler – 4
American Wigeon – 5
Ring-necked Duck – 4
White-winged Scoter – 8
Caspian Tern – 1
Common Loon – 4
Merlin – 1
Golden-crowned Kinglet – 4
Brown Creeper – 1
Fox Sparrow – 10
This will be my last bird report or blog post from Montrose for a while. See the post immediately above for the reason why.
March 26, 2020