Category Archives: Non-Montrose Birding

This category is for birding topics not related to Montrose birds or birding. To be used sparingly.

Graceland Cemetery – Switching Gears

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.

The Basics

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

Connecticut Warbler

Playing hide-and-seek with a Connecticut Warbler at Graceland Cemetery (click to see the larger version)

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

Jack Johnson Grave

Jack Johnson’s Grave, Graceland Cemetery (click to see the larger version)

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.

Final Thoughts

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

Belmont Harbor Surf Scoters, February 7, 2015

Surf Scoters

Surf Scoters (click to see the larger version)

Karen and I had 2 Surf Scoters, an immature male and an immature female, at the mouth of Belmont Harbor this morning, February 7. Both birds got up and flew north while we were watching them and may have landed near Montrose. After a long schlep up the lakefront we got to Montrose and could not relocate the birds, so apparently they kept going.

Our only other birds of note were a Red-bellied Woodpecker in the Marovitz Golf Course, a pretty good bird for the immediate lakefront, and the continuing juvenile Red-tailed Hawk at Montrose. It felt good to be out and about and feel the sun on our faces.

Quincy Ivory Gull, January 3, 2015

Ivory Gull

Adult Ivory Gull at Quincy, Illinois. Photo by Amar Ayyash. (click to see the larger version)

After getting off to a late start Karen and I arrived at Lock and Dam 21 at 3:00 on the afternoon of January 3, 2015 to look for the adult Ivory Gull found a couple days earlier by local birder Jason Mullins. I didn’t need Ivory Gull for anything, having seen the 1991/92 Chicago bird and several others in Iowa and Wisconsin, but Karen needed it for a lifer, so we decided to make the long trek to Quincy, Illinois to look for the bird after reading that it was seen that morning. I was also reluctant to go because of the inclement weather and forecast poor road conditions, but the only precipitation we encountered was liquid, so the roads were just wet and not icy as I had feared.

At about 4:00 a fellow from Kansas spotted the bird standing on a small ice floe about a mile up river and probably in Missouri waters from where we were at the lock and dam. We could tell it was little Pagophila but we wanted better looks so we got in our cars and raced north. Just south of the bridge we saw a group of birders with scopes standing in a parking lot next to the river and when we got closer one of them pointed out over the river, so we knew they had the Ivory Gull. After some fumbling around we were able to get on the bird with our scopes, though it was still a long way off. We watched it preen and bath and nearly become a meal for a couple Bald Eagles (there are a lot of Bald Eagles around Quincy). We didn’t have the same mouth watering looks that others had but we saw the bird reasonably well and Karen got her lifer and I got my second Illinois Ivory Gull.

Into the West, Part 6: The Upper Texas Coast and Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge

Part six of a six part series on my trip to the west and southwest in April, 2014

I spent April 28 and 29 birding the Bolivar Peninsula and Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge on the Upper Texas Coast. The passerine migration on the UTC was almost non-existent when I was there, so except for a very brief visit to Boy Scout Woods I skipped High Island and spent most of my time looking for shorebirds, terns, and other waterbirds, which were in abundance.

Bolivar Flats Shorebirds

Bolivar Flats Shorebirds (click to see the larger version)

The Houston Audubon Society Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary is an amazing place in spring. Every time I bird there I’m floored by the number and variety of shorebirds and terns that use the place, and it was no different this time. As I walked down the beach on my first morning I saw what looked like gnats on the shoreline in the distance. When I looked with my bins I could see that the gnats were actually shorebirds. Thousands of them. Abundanza. Hundreds of American Avocets were working the beach, along with numbers of Eastern and Western Willets, Short-billed Dowitchers, Black-bellied and Semipalmated Plovers, Ruddy Turnstones, and Sanderlings. I also had a few Red Knots, Marbled Godwits, Western, White-rumped, and Baird’s Sandpipers, and Wilson’s and Piping Plovers. I even had a flock of Wilson’s Phalaropes fly in and land in a puddle on the beach. Tern numbers and variety were impressive too and I had all 9 of the regularly occurring species, with Royal, Sandwich, Black, and Least being most common. It’s not just the number of birds that makes Bolivar Flats so impressive but also how busy and bustling it seems.

I also checked Rollover Pass and Fort Travis Seashore Park. Rollover Pass is a man-made channel that cuts through the Bolivar Peninsula and connects the Gulf of Mexico to Galveston Bay. The islands, sandbars, and spits in Galveston Bay at Rollover held lots of resting terns, including Royal, Sandwich, and Least, and good numbers of Black Skimmers. Shorebirds weren’t abundant but I did have a couple American Oystercatchers and Wilson’s Plovers. Fort Travis Seashore Park wasn’t on my itinerary but I noticed on the sightings board at Boy Scout Woods that Buff-breasted Sandpipers were seen there recently, so I decided to have a look. Fort Travis is at the tip of the Bolivar Peninsula and is mostly open and grass covered, which is why Buff-breasteds like it I guess. I had a flock of 10 Buff-breasteds walking around on the grass, almost in front of me at one point, my only Buffies of the trip.

American Bittern

American Bittern (click to see the larger version)

When I was done with Bolivar in the morning I headed over to Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, which is just up the road. Anahuac is a joy to bird, and some of the easiest birding you can do (actually, the whole Upper Texas Coast is like this). There’s no slogging through mud or fighting through brush to see birds at Anahuac. A series of easy to drive gravel roads traverse the refuge, offering excellent views of the marshes and impoundments. Most of the time you don’t even have to get out of your car to see the birds. Anahuac was excellent for herons and egrets, and I had multiple Yellow-crowned Night-Herons and American and Least Bitterns, in addition to the more common species. I also had Black-bellied and Fulvous Whistling-Ducks, my only Fulvous Whistling-Ducks of the trip, and King and Clapper Rails. Shorebirds were good too, with numbers of Whimbrels, Stilt Sandpipers, and Long-billed Dowitchers, a couple Hudsonian Godwits, and a bonus Ruff. Anahuac isn’t known for its passerines but at least there were lots of Boat-tailed Grackles to look at and study, and I had my only Seaside Sparrows of the trip in a saltmarsh near the Gulf.

Between Bolivar and Anahuac I ended up with 34 species of shorebirds over the 2 days I was on the Upper Texas Coast. The only regularly occurring shorebirds I missed were Upland Sandpiper and Snowy Plover, both of which were probably around and I just missed them. In contrast to the shorebirds I had exactly 1 species of warbler, Common Yellowthroat, the breeding birds at Anahuac. I don’t think I’ve ever done well with passerines on the Upper Texas Coast but the shorebirds, terns, herons, egrets, and other waterbirds always come through.

When I was planning the trip I looked at my map for a place I could bird for a couple hours on my way back to Chicago, someplace in Louisiana or Mississippi that was close to Interstate 10, the highway that took me through Texas and that would take me part of the way home. I saw a green blob on the map called Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge in southern Louisiana near Baton Rouge that looked interesting. I did a little research and found out that Atchafalaya had nesting Swallow-tailed and Mississippi Kites and Swainson’s Warblers, which was enough for me. Twist my arm. As soon as I entered the refuge I noticed large flocks of White Ibises wheeling around overhead, along with smaller numbers of Anhingas and Little Blue Herons. Songbirds were going strong with lots of Prothonotary and Hooded Warblers, White-eyed and Red-eyed Vireos, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and Indigo Buntings. I also had several Painted Buntings and Summer Tanagers. After a little while I started seeing Mississippi Kites and eventually one Swallow-tailed Kite too. I did hear and then see a Swainson’s Warbler but it took a while and I had to play a recording to see it (please, no lectures). The checklist for the refuge claims that Swainson’s Warblers are common but I have a hard time believing they’re common anywhere. At least I saw one. I wonder what the Cajuns thought when they saw me, iPad in hand with white cross trainers, walk off into the woods to look for the Swainson’s. The biggest surprise was an Inca Dove, a bird that isn’t even on the refuge checklist.

After Atchafalaya I started back home. I didn’t do much birding on the way, except for what I could see while driving, which wasn’t much. After 13 states, 3700 miles driven, and 332 species of birds I arrived back in Chicago on the evening of May 1, just in time for rush hour and a snarling traffic jam.

Into the West, Part 5: West Texas and Lost Maples State Natural Area

Part five of a six part series on my trip to the west and southwest in April, 2014

On April 26 I dropped Karen off in Lordsburg, New Mexico so she could begin her Continental Divide Trail hike. The road to the trailhead for the CDT is unimproved and not suitable for anything except a high clearance SUV or tank, which my Honda Civic isn’t, so Karen would have to take a shuttle to get to the trailhead. The shuttle is sponsored by the CDT Coalition and transports hikers to the trailhead from Lordsburg several times a week during hiking season. The trailhead itself, at the Crazy Cook Monument, is on the New Mexico and Chihuahua, Mexico border. The monument was named after a cook who apparently killed someone at or near this spot in the 19th century.

Western Scrub-Jay

Western Scrub-Jay (click to see the larger version)

After dropping Karen off I started driving east through New Mexico on Interstate 10, the southernmost transcontinental highway in the American Interstate Highway System, running from California to Florida. I was in a hurry to get to Texas and I had a long drive ahead of me, so my birding was limited to what I could see from my car. The habitat on this drive was fairly monotonous, and except for Turkey Vultures, White-winged Doves, Western Kingbirds, and ravens I didn’t see much in the way of bird life.

Just after I entered Texas from New Mexico I saw a sign on the side of the road that read “Beaumont 840 miles”. Beaumont is at the other end of Texas and my heart sank a little as I realized I would have to drive every one of those 840 miles to get through it. I’ve driven the lengths of North and South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas, but driving from one end of Texas to the other would make driving those other states seem like a walk across the street. The birds in western Texas were similar to what I had just experienced driving through New Mexico, i.e., Turkey Vultures, White-winged Doves, Western Kingbirds, ravens, and not much else. Near Fort Stockton I started to see Cave Swallows flying around highway bridges. I hadn’t seen Cave Swallows in a long time so this was a treat. At one bridge a swarm of Cave Swallows came pouring out in protest when I started pishing. Who knew that pishing would work on swallows. Just east of Sheffield I checked a canyon mentioned in “A Birder’s Guide to the Rio Grande Valley” that was supposed to have Gray Vireos. After a little exploring I heard a Gray Vireo singing and after a foot chase I saw the bird reasonably well. Gray Vireo was another bird I hadn’t seen more than a couple times so I was thrilled, even if the look wasn’t stellar.

On the morning of April 27 I birded Lost Maples State Natural Area near Vanderpool. Lost Maples is a gem of a birding place and turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip. I haven’t been to Lost Maples in a long time so my memory of it was foggy at best. As I drove into the park I rolled my windows down and was overwhelmed with a dawn chorus of birds as impressive as any dawn chorus I’ve experienced in the Midwest. Dominant were White-eyed Vireos, Indigo Buntings, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and Summer Tanagers. I also had Eastern Wood-Pewees, Ash-throated and Acadian Flycatchers, Carolina and Canyon Wrens, Hutton’s and Yellow-throated Vireos, and Blue and Western Scrub-jays, for a nice mix of eastern and western birds. I heard far more than I saw, which is typical of most dawn choruses. The star attractions of the park however are the Black-capped Vireos and Golden-cheeked Warblers that nest almost side by side. I heard 7 or 8 Black-capped Vireos but saw only 2. They really are shy little birds and if they don’t want to be seen they won’t. I had better luck seeing Golden-cheeked Warblers, and a pair actually came in to investigate my pishing. I also had a Zone-tailed Hawk, a bird I missed in Arizona. Wonderful place, Lost Maples is.

After Lost Maples I took a spin through the Texas Hill Country on my way to San Antonio. There were lots of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, Western Kingbirds, and Northern Mockingbirds along the roadside, and several Crested Caracaras flying around. Fun birding.

Into the West, Part 4: The Chiricahuas

Part four of a six part series on my trip to the west and southwest in April, 2014

On April 20 Karen and I arrived in the Chiricahua Mountains of southeastern Arizona. We spent five days there, most of that time in the South Fork of Cave Creek Canyon. We also took a side trip up to Barfoot Park, over to Wilcox on our last day to check Lake Cochise for shorebirds, and a couple other places nearby. We made daily trips down to Portal for food and to check the feeders in town. I’ve birded the Chiricahuas before, but never for more than a day or two, so I was excited about spending quality time exploring these mountains, the ancestral home of the Chiricahua Apache Indians. We were also tired of driving and wanted to relax and enjoy ourselves. Between all the hiking and birding we really didn’t relax but we did enjoy ourselves. Relaxing in the the Chiricahuas probably isn’t an option if you’re a birder. Birding there is like being a kid set loose in a toy store.

Montezuma Quail

Montezuma Quail (click to see the larger version)

The Chiricahuas are located in the Coronado National Forest and offer some of the finest birding in the United States, specializing in species that are largely Mexican in distribution, like the other border range mountains of southeastern Arizona. The birds that we heard and saw on our daily hikes in Cave Creek Canyon include Black-throated Gray and Grace’s Warblers, Painted Redstarts, Acorn and Arizona Woodpeckers, Mexican Jays, Scott’s Orioles, Dusky-capped and Ash-throated Flycatchers (Dusky-capped were the most common Myiarchus), Plumbeous Vireos, Hepatic Tanagers, Canyon Wrens, and Bridled Titmice. Many of these birds were around our campground and a little pishing or a Northern Pygmy-Owl impression often brought the Black-throated Gray Warblers and Painted Redstarts right in. We also had Magnificent and Blue-throated Hummingbirds, Hutton’s Vireos, a few Brown-crested Flycatchers, Townsend’s Solitaires, and Bewick’s Wrens. Higher up in the canyon we had Red-faced Warblers and Yellow-eyed Juncos. Migrants warblers included Townsend’s, Wilson’s, and Orange-crowned. In addition to the Sierra Madrean/Western species we had some familiar friends – American Robins, White-breasted Nuthatches, Hairy Woodpeckers, House Wrens, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Brown Creepers, and Hermit Thrushes. At night we were serenaded by Whiskered Screech-Owls (camping does have its benefits). Some of our better finds in Cave Creek Canyon were Buff-breasted Flycatcher, a male Elegant Trogon, and a pair of Montezuma Quail that flushed almost underfoot along the trail, scaring the hell out of us. The trogon was probably the birding highlight of our time in the Chiricahuas and we both did a happy dance after seeing him.

On April 21 we drove up to Barfoot Park to look for, among other birds, Olive Warbler and Mexican Chickadee. The habitat at Barfoot is decidedly Rocky Mountain in character and unlike the drier Sierra Madrean pine and oak forest found lower down. Olive Warblers can be found in other mountain ranges in Arizona but Mexican Chickadees are found only in the Chiricahuas (Mexican Chickadees also occur in the Animas Mountains of New Mexico but the Animas are privately owned and not easily accessible, so most birders go to the Chiricahuas to get their ABA area Mexican Chickadee.) We did hear an Olive Warbler but we dipped on the chickadee. Apparently the chickadees are busy nesting in April and May and can be hard to find then. I’m also guessing they were hit hard by the Horseshoe Two Fire in 2011, so there are probably fewer of them. Mexican Chickadee was one of our target birds but neither of us needed it for a lifer, so it wasn’t a huge miss. Despite its attractiveness we only birded Barfoot once because the road up to Barfoot is narrow, winding, and uneven, and my Honda Civic protested the whole way up and back down. The state of Arizona refers to this type of road as “unimproved”, which translates to “not fit for low clearance vehicles”.

Harris's Hawk

Harris’s Hawk (click to see the larger version)

On April 26, our last day in Arizona, we bid the Chiricahuas goodbye and drove to Wilcox to check Lake Cochise for shorebirds. Lake Cochise is actually a waste water pond and was named after the Chiricahua Apache chief and resistance leader Cochise. I wonder how Cochise would feel about having his name attached to a waste water pond. Lake Cochise proves the adage that water is life in the desert, even untreated waste water. The ponds were full of shorebirds, including hundreds of Wilson’s Phalaropes, American Avocets, Willets, Western Sandpipers, and a few Long-billed Dowitchers. There were waterfowl too, mostly Northern Shovelers and Ruddy Ducks but also American Wigeon and Gadwall. Rounding out the list were a couple White-faced Ibises, an immature Bonaparte’s Gull, and a covey of Scaled Quail.