Some of you may remember the hordes of Purple Martins that staged at Montrose in late summer in the 1970s and 1980s. It was quite a sight and quite a sound, as several thousand martins would roost in the tall cottonwoods and suddenly explode in noisy, excited flight. This spectacle is a thing of the past – most of the Purple Martins we see anymore are the nesting birds on the northwest side of the harbor, and they number less than 100. I took this photo of migrant Purple Martins staging at LaSalle Fish and Wildlife Area in Indiana in late August 2021. The photo reminds me of what we used to experience at Montrose.
I took a break from Chicago birding and headed down to the Kankakee Sands in Newton County, Indiana on January 9. The Kankakee Sands is a complex of prairie and wetland habitat owned and managed by the Indiana chapter of The Nature Conservancy. I visit the Sands several times each year, usually in summer and winter to look for birds and butterflies. Birding is excellent all year round. Summer is the season to see the grassland specialties like Henslow’s and Grasshopper Sparrows and Dickcissels, which are hard to miss and fill the air with their songs. Winter brings a different set of visitors, most notably raptors like Rough-legged Hawk, Northern Harrier, and Short-eared Owl. These birds of prey were my avian targets on my January 9 visit. I saw a dozen Rough-legged Hawks and seven Northern Harriers, all coursing the fields for rodents or perching on the tip tops of trees for a better vantage. I missed Short-eared Owls, probably because I was there too late in the morning, but they are there and in numbers. I also had a couple of Bald Eagles and American Kestrels, a Cooper’s Hawk, and a lone Red-tailed Hawk. The Sands is one of the few places where Rough-legged Hawks outnumber the usually more common Red-tailed Hawk. The main mammal claim to fame at the Sands is a herd of about 70 American Bison. These Bison were introduced to a section of the Sands in 2016 and play an important role in maintaining the integrity of the grasslands. They’re hard to miss and I didn’t have any problem finding them.
How to Bird The Kankakee Sands (and look for Bison)
The Kankakee Sands is about an hour and a half due south of Chicago off of US41 in eastern Newton County, Indiana. Morocco is the nearest large town and lies about six miles to the south. When I bird the Sands I drive back and forth slowly on the gravel roads east of US41, looking and listening for birds and other wildlife. These roads don’t get a lot of traffic, especially in winter, and are safe to bird while driving. Note that in winter the roads might not be drivable because of heavy snow. County roads 500N and 400N are excellent for birds of prey.
The Bison are best viewed from the Bison Viewing Area west of US41. To reach it, take 400W south from 400N for about half a mile. Look for a gravel road that goes east and take it to the parking lot. Walk up to the top of the rise and start scanning. The Bison are usually to the south, east, or northeast. They can be seen with your eyes but binoculars make the experience more enjoyable. This is also an excellent place and vantage point to look for Rough-legged Hawks, Northern Harriers, and other birds of prey. I’ve included a link to my eBird checklist for my January 9 visit below. The checklist includes more photos of the birds I saw.
To read more about The Nature Conservancy’s efforts at Kankakee Sands, go to this site – Efroymson Restoration at Kankakee Sands.
January 9, 2021
I live on the outskirts of Wrigleyville in Chicago, about a mile from Montrose Point and its famous bird sanctuary. My third-floor apartment offers a decent and relatively unobstructed view to the west. When I’m home I often look out my windows to see if anything is flying by. I’ve had some interesting birds and birding experiences over the years – Bald Eagles and Peregrine Falcons, big flights of Common Nighthawks in late summer, and when the conditions are right, flocks of Sandhill Cranes in late fall. On the morning of October 28, 11 Sandhills came in from the north, not far from my apartment building. Sandhill Cranes are less common close to Lake Michigan – I rarely get large flights of them, unless the wind is strong and from the west, which it was on October 28. When those conditions occur, and I have time to look, I sometimes see hundreds or even thousands moving south. I didn’t have a lot of time that day, so those 11 Sandhills were all I saw.
If you live in Chicago and want to see Sandhill Cranes, check the skies from late October to early December on days with strong west winds following the passage of a cold front. You might see them under other weather conditions but they move en masse on days with west winds, the stronger the better.
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
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.
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.