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.
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.
2019 was a phenomenal year for birds and birding at Montrose, both for migration and the number of rarities and vagrants seen. We also had a historic nesting record. I can’t remember a more exciting year, and I’ve been birding Montrose for over 40 years. Some of the notable happenings include (underlined text points to a story on this blog)
- Ancient Murrelet (first site record, fourth state record)
- Cassin’s Kingbird (first site record, first state record)
- Long-billed Curlew (first site record, first state record in 40+ years)
- Black Vulture (first site record)
- Barred Owl (first site record)
- Townsend’s Warbler (second site record)
- Snowy Plover (third site record)
- Black-bellied Whistling-Duck (second site record)
- Nesting Piping Plovers (first successful nesting in Chicago in over 50 years)
By my tally, at least five new species were added to the list of birds recorded at Montrose, bringing the total to 348. This is above the 2-3 yearly average for the last few years. I’m not sure why 2019 was so special but 350 is within striking distance and will likely happen in 2020. To see a list of birds recorded at Montrose, see the Montrose List page on this site, URL below.
If you’ve been to Montrose you’ve probably noticed the structure due east on the horizon that looks like it’s floating on Lake Michigan. This is the Wilson Avenue Crib and it was part of the water distribution system for Chicago. The cribs pump water to the filtration plants, also along the lakefront. The filtration plants purify the water and distribute it to the city and nearby suburbs for consumption. The Wilson Avenue Crib is no longer operational but several species of birds are making good use of it. The dark shapes in the photos are Double-crested Cormorants and they nest on the crib. State endangered Peregrine Falcons have also nested there.
I took this photo with my digital camera and Questar telescope in June 2019, a technique known as digiscoping. To read more about how I digiscope, see the Digiscoping with a Questar page on my main birding website, The Orniphile. The Wilson Avenue Crib is about 2 miles offshore.
The WTTW news program Chicago Tonight ran a fine piece about the Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary and its birds on May 24, 2017. The piece featured photos and videos from renowned nature photographer Rob Curtis and commentary from bird habitat expert Judy Pollock. Click the play button below to watch it in its entirety.
August 7, 2013 is the ten year anniversary of the Montrose Black-tailed Gull. This is my account of that sighting.
Early on the morning of August 7, 2003, Chicago birder Mike Miller was scanning Montrose Beach and noticed an odd dark gull among the local Ring-billed Gulls that had gathered at the west end of the beach. I was standing next to Mike and when I heard him utter the words “There’s a darker backed gull over here” I swung my telescope around to where he was looking and almost immediately saw what looked like an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull. In the back of my mind however I knew this could be the coveted Black-tailed Gull that had been seen as recently as the day before at Miller Beach in Indiana, and several months earlier along the southern Wisconsin lakefront. We were too far away to see the diagnostic red tip to the bill, so with hearts racing and hopes soaring we picked up our scopes and gear and ran over to get a better look at the bird. With closer views the red tipped bill was visible, clinching the identification as a Black-tailed Gull (Larus crassirostris), almost certainly the Black-tailed Gull that had apparently been wandering around Lake Michigan for the past few months. After taking a few dozen photos I made a mental description of the bird: about the same size as a Ring-billed Gull, slaty-gray mantle similar in color to a graellsii Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus), yellow legs, yellow bill with a black subterminal band and red tip, and black tail band. Within minutes other birders started to arrive including Montrose regulars Kanae Hirabayashi and John Purcell. I decided that I had enough photos of the bird so I sped home to get word out of the Asian vagrant that was at Montrose Beach. Luckily, the Black-tailed Gull spent several hours at Montrose and, unlike the earlier sightings in Wisconsin and Indiana, was seen by a number of birders. The bird also made the Channel 7 evening news, the Chicago Tribune, and the MSNBC Web site.
The Black-tailed Gull is normally found in the western Pacific Ocean around Japan (Harrison 1983). Indeed, one of the common names of this species is Japanese Gull. There are about 11 records for Alaska and another 9 or so for the rest of North America, including sightings as far south as Belize and as far east as Newfoundland, Canada (Lethaby and Bangma 1998). What makes the Chicago Black-tailed Gull significant is that there is only one previous interior North American record of this species, a bird seen in 1987 at Lake Winnepegosis, Manitoba. Clearly this is not a species that is likely to show up in the Midwest.
Note: This story appeared in Volume 13, Number 2 of Meadowlark, A Journal of Illinois Birds, the quarterly journal of the Illinois Ornithological Society.
Harrison, Peter 1983. Seabirds, An Identification Guide. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston MA, 448 pp.
Lethaby, Nick and Jim Bangma 1998. Identifying Black-tailed Gull in North America. Birding 30 (6): 470-483.