Lapland Longspurs (click to see the larger version)
Lapland Longspurs usually don’t spend the winter at Montrose. We see them during fall migration, but these birds almost always continue moving south and are gone by late December. In mid January 2024, a group of Lapland Longspurs showed up in the Dunes and was still there as of January 21. The group varied in size from about 45 to over 100 birds. They preferred the open area on the southwest side of the Dunes, feeding on seeds on the wind blown sand and snow. A few Snow Buntings and Horned Larks, both also rare at Montrose in the winter, often joined them. This association of field loving passerines is a regular winter sight along northern Illinois roadsides and in Illinois farm fields. Also of note is that the longspurs and Snow Buntings would sometimes fly up to and roost in the tops of tall trees, at least for a little while. This behavior was usually stimulated by an American Kestrel or other raptor flying over the Dunes or making a pass at the birds.
To look for the Lap flock, scan the large open area on the southwest side of the Dunes. The birds have been easy to spot on the snow covered field, and can be tame and approachable while looking for food.
Herring, Ring-billed, and Iceland Gulls (click to see the larger version)
The middle of January is about the slowest time of the year for birding at Montrose. If you see 20 species on a visit you’re doing very well. January 13, 2024 proved to be the best mid winter day of birding I’ve experienced at Montrose. I tallied 32 species in a couple hours of birding, and 41 species were reported to eBird by all observers for the day. My highlights include
Some of these birds were likely driven south by an approaching Artic cold front. The temperature on January 13 was in the 20s, but dropped below zero overnight and is expected to stay in this range for several days. Extreme weather events like this often produce extreme birding events.
Lapland Longspurs flying over Montrose Point (click to see the larger version)
A large movement of Lapland Longspurs took place at Montrose on the morning of December 15. Multiple flocks totaling about 150 birds and ranging in size from a handful to 60 made their way south over the Point and Lake Michigan. Some were far offshore and just a few feet above the water. This isn’t unusual in late fall and early winter, but the numbers are. Interestingly, these birds were flying into a strong southwest wind, which seems counterintuitive, especially considering how small longspurs are. Flocks of Lapland Longspurs are fairly easy to recognize – loose groups of sparrow-like birds with a noticeable bouncy flight.
Does migration ever really end? It’s down to a trickle at Montrose, but as of mid December we’re still seeing birds that can justifiably be called migrants, like these Lapland Longspurs. The only time migration isn’t easy to detect, at least here in Chicago, is the period from mid January to early February.
Snow Buntings at Montrose Dunes, fall 2020. (click to see the larger version)
November is one of the most exciting months of the year at Montrose. The list of rarities found there in November is long and distinguished. As examples, an Ancient Murrelet, just the fourth record for Illinois, made an appearance in 2019, and in 2020 the fourth state record Cassin’s Sparrow delighted birders. General birding can be good too. Here are a few November birding tips:
Check the beach and Dunes for Lapland Longspurs and Snow Buntings. The buntings favor the more open areas of the Dunes, and the longspurs are usually flying over. Both will sometimes feed out in the open on the beach or even in the algae that washes up on the beach.
On days with brisk west winds, Short-eared Owls are a good bet in the Dunes. They usually kick up out of the denser vegetation and fly out over Lake Michigan.
With a little effort and luck, Northern Saw-whet and Long-eared Owls can be found in the peripheral plantings. Look for whitewash and listen for scolding, excited Black-capped Chickadees.
The fishing pier is an excellent place to scan Lake Michigan for loons, grebes, and waterfowl, either resting on the surface or in flight. Overcast days with light winds offer the best viewing conditions.
Northern Shrikes like the Dunes and more open areas of the Point. Look for them perched in the tops of trees or flying through, flashing their white wing and tail spots.
Black-legged Kittiwakes sometimes turn up, especially on days with northeast winds. They aren’t a sure bet but if you’re at Montrose on a day with easterly winds, pay attention to the gulls flying by. This applies for jaegers too.
As expected, the strong south winds brought a lot of migrants to Montrose Point on March 30. I ended up with 41 species in a little over two hours of effort, and 57 species were reported on eBird by all observers. Most impressive were the numbers of Northern Flickers coming in off Lake Michigan early in the morning. These birds were migrating north over the lake at night, and when the sun rose they started to head inland towards land and safety. No passerine or other landbird worth its life wants to get caught over Lake Michigan when the sun comes up. The local Peregrine Falcons and Herring Gulls relish hunting these tardy migrants as they make their way to shore. I also had multiple first of spring sightings, including Caspian Tern, Belted Kingfisher, Hermit Thrush, and Lapland Longspur. Link to my eBird checklist for the morning below.
Lapland Longspur (click to see the larger version)
Eight or so Lapland Longspurs were working the east side and southeast corner of Montrose Dunes this afternoon, October 22. These birds were tame and approachable, as Laps can be at Montrose. They weren’t quite as easy to photograph because of the incessant human activity, but I did manage to get a couple passable shots.