Category Archives: History

Water Crib Action

Wilson Avenue Crib

Wilson Avenue Crib (click to see the larger version)

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.

Montrose in the News!

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.

Ten Year Anniversary of the Black-tailed Gull

Black-tailed Gull

2003 Montrose Black-tailed Gull (click to see a larger version)

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.

Literature Cited

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.

Blast From the Past – Black Rail, May 30, 1994

Black Rail

Photo by Kanae Hirabayashi (click to see the larger version).

On May 30, 1994, Chicago birder Kanae Hirabayashi found a Black Rail at Montrose. The bird put on quite a show for the dozens of people who saw it, walking around in the open and giving mouth watering looks. This bird was a lifer for many birders, including myself, and I haven’t seen one since. On a side note, all of the rails that have been recorded in Illinois have been seen at Montrose.

Digiscoping With a Questar

Digiscoping – The practice of using a digital camera with a telescope for magnification.

In March, 2003, I bought a Fujifilm A303 digital camera to use with my Questar telescope for photographing birds and other wildlife. The Fujifilm A303 is basically a point-and-shoot camera that doesn’t have many bells and whistles, which is just as well – the less time I have to futz with the camera’s settings the more time I can concentrate on taking pictures. Besides, the camera does a reasonably good job of automatically adjusting the Fstop, shutter speed, and other settings.

Digiscoping with a Questar

Photo by Kanae Hirabayashi

The most popular camera that birdwatchers use for digiscoping is one of the Nikon Coolpix models. I decided against buying a Coolpix because of the cost and the fact that it’s a big, bulky camera that almost requires an adapter to use with a telescope. By comparison, the Fujifilm A303 is small and using it with my Questar is fairly straightforward and easy: I center and focus the subject in my scope and hold the camera up to the eyepiece and shoot. Unfortunately the resulting images aren’t always stellar so an image editing program such as Photoshop is necessary to make corrections.

The main problem I have with using the camera with my Questar is that there’s a perceptible delay between depressing the shutter and recording the image, a problem that doesn’t occur with SLRs or high-end digital cameras. This delay is most noticeable (and most annoying) when a bird moves out of view just before the image is recorded. Another problem is that the autofocus on the camera sometimes gets confused about what exactly to focus on. This happens, for example, when I’m trying to photograph a bird in a tree and there are branches between the camera and bird. The resulting image has the bird slightly out of focus but the branches in focus. Finally, photographing flying birds is almost impossible – it’s simply too hard to follow a flying bird with the scope and hold the camera at the same time. Despite the shortcomings, I’ve had good results (and good luck) photographing birds and insects with this camera/scope arrangement.


My Fujifilm A303 digital camera died in July, 2007. In August I purchased a Fujifilm A610 digital camera, which is similar to the A303 but has more megapixels (6.3 versus 3.2) and a larger LCD. In November, 2007 I lost my A610 and I bought a Fujifilm A820 to replace it. Hopefully I won’t lose this one.