Category Archives: History

Open Water Means Life

White-winged Scoters, Red-breasted Mergansers, and Greater Scaup

White-winged Scoters, Red-breasted Mergansers, and Greater Scaup. March 2014. (click to see the larger version)

Lake Michigan is a huge body of water. At 300 miles long and almost 120 miles at its widest, it’s rightly considered an inland sea as much as a large lake. In winter, Lake Michigan supports tens if not hundreds of thousands of waterfowl. Most are Common and Red-breasted Mergansers, Common Goldeneye, Long-tailed Ducks, and Greater Scaup. Any open area of water on the Lake will host at least a few of these species in winter. These birds depend on the Lake for food. As long as they have access to open water they can hunt for fish, crustaceans, and mollusks and survive the worst that winter has to offer. They’re all resilient birds. Lake Michigan has never completely frozen over, but it’s come close. The winter of 2013/2014 was especially cold and saw a 93% peak ice coverage in early March. The stress this puts on the birds that depend on having open water is enormous. Some don’t make it. I remember the winter of 2013/2014. In early March, Lake Michigan was frozen to the horizon at Montrose Point in Chicago, with a tiny open spot off the southeast point. In this open spot were a group of Greater Scaup, White-winged Scoters, and Red-breasted Mergansers, all desperate and trying frantically to survive. The only thing keeping the water from freezing was their paddling and movement. I found several dead ducks, some frozen on the ice, and a few even on land. This is a reminder of how harsh nature can be, and what happens when a resource becomes unavailable to large numbers of birds.

Red-breasted and Common Mergansers and Herring Gulls

Red-breasted and Common Mergansers and Herring Gulls. February 2021. (click to see the larger version)

As I write this post in mid-February 2021, Chicago is experiencing a stretch of unseasonably cold late winter weather. Most of Lake Michigan at Montrose is frozen to the horizon, with small areas of open water at the harbor mouth and off the fishing pier. From a birding point of view, checking these open areas is worthwhile since they tend to attract and concentrate ducks and gulls. In addition to the expected Common and Red-breasted Mergansers and Common Goldeneye, we’ve seen Long-tailed Duck and Black Scoter. According to NOAA, Lake Michigan has about 27% ice coverage, a far cry from 93% in 2014. If the unseasonably cold weather persists, the 27% will no doubt increase.

2020 Winter Finches

Purple Finch

Purple Finch, one of the winter finches (click to see the larger version)

Winter Finch – A collective term that refers to Arctic, subarctic, and boreal forest breeding members of the family Fringillidae. This includes redpolls, Pine Siskin, crossbills, Pine and Evening Grosbeaks, and Purple Finch.

This continues to be an excellent fall for winter finches in the Midwest. Common Redpolls, Pine Siskins, and Purple Finches are being seen almost daily at Montrose. Even more exciting were reports of two of the rarer winter finches. On November 3, I found 10 White-winged Crossbills in a spruce tree near the Park Bait Shop (at the corner of W. Montrose Avenue and W. Montrose Harbor Drive), and several observers saw an Evening Grosbeak on November 5. According to eBird, the last White-winged Crossbills from Montrose were in 2012. The last Evening Grosbeak record was about 20 years ago. The rest of the fall should see more of these birds. The Montrose Map page has an interactive map that shows the road system at Montrose.

How to Look for Winter Finches at Montrose

There are a couple of ways to look for winter finches at Montrose. We don’t have a lot of finch habitat but we have some. The pine and spruce trees south of the main entrance of the Sanctuary on W. Montrose Harbor Drive have cones that could attract crossbills. The hawthorns on the service road to the beach house are laden with berries. We’ve been seeing Purple Finches in these hawthorns and they could attract Pine and Evening Grosbeaks. The pine and spruce trees next to the Park Bait Shop don’t have many cones but could attract crossbills and are easy check. Redpolls like weedy areas such as the native planting areas at the south and east end of the Point and north of the Marovitz Golf Course.

The Red Baron

The Red Baron

The Red Baron (click to see the larger version)

In early August 2020, a sculpture appeared at Montrose near the harbor. The sculpture resembles a giant bird and I’ve dubbed it The Red Baron. Reactions from the Montrose community have been mixed. Some think it’s ugly and intrusive and doesn’t belong in a nature sanctuary. Others think it could interfere with migration and injure birds. My reaction was one of surprise and delight. Montrose is known for its nature and outdoor recreation but has no art of any kind. I think this sculpture adds character and brings something different to the park and it isn’t large enough to harm wildlife.

The Red Baron is near the Purple Martin houses on the northwest side of the harbor.

Lake Michigan is High!

Montrose Harbor

Montrose Harbor (click to see the larger version)

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.

Montrose Closed, March 26, 2020

Police closing Montrose Point

Sign of the times. Police closing Montrose Point. Photo courtesy of Ben Sanders (click to see the larger version)

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.