Long-tailed Ducks (click to see the larger version)
On December 8 a group of six Long-tailed Ducks put on an air show worthy of the Blue Angels. The birds flew in a big circle low over the fishing pier, beach, and against the Chicago skyline. Most were strikingly plumaged adult males. Seeing this many Long-tailed Ducks so close to shore is unusual. More photos are at my eBird checklist for the morning, URL below.
Eared Grebe (upper left) with 2 Horned Grebes and a Red-breasted Merganser (click to see the larger version)
April 11 lived up to the billing and turned out to be an exceptional day for migrants, with about 80 species reported to eBird. The south winds overnight brought in a lot of birds, as south winds usually do in spring. Northern Flickers and Hermit Thrushes were conspicuous by their numbers. Bird of the day goes to the nearly full breeding plumaged Eared Grebe on Lake Michigan near the base of the fishing pier. The bird was close to shore and conveniently associating with a group of Horned Grebes for comparison. Eared Grebes are rare and not annual at Montrose. Other goodies include Merlin, Short-eared Owl, Eurasian Collared-Dove, and the late continuing male Long-tailed Duck along the fishing pier. Link to my eBird checklist for the morning below.
Long-tailed Duck (click to see the larger version)
Terry Walsh picked out an adult male Long-tailed Duck next to the fishing pier on April 4. The bird was very tame and never strayed far from the pier while we watched it, though trying to photograph it in the heavy lake chop proved challenging. Long-tailed Ducks aren’t rare at Montrose, but April is getting late for them and we usually don’t see them so close to shore.
April 4 was also a good day for passerine migrants, with many Golden-crowned Kinglets. Song Sparrows, and Dark-eyed Juncos around. The eBird total for the day hit about 60 species. Activity will only pick up from here until mid May. Link to my eBird checklist below.
A Snowy Owl was roosting on the end of the fishing pier early on the morning of December 21. This may be the same individual we saw on December 17 as both birds were heavily barred and had paler napes. The fishing pier is a popular location for Snowies when they are around – for this reason, you should always scan it in winter. Unfortunately the pier is also popular with humans while it’s ice free, a fact today’s Snowy found out when an unobservant jogger ran to the end of the pier and flushed it.
As exciting as the Snowy Owl were the 8 Long-tailed Ducks that flew in and landed on Lake Michigan off the end of the fishing pier. Seven of these Long-tailed were striking adult males in their gray and white winter garb. Long-tailed Ducks are regular at Montrose, but seeing a large group of adult males so close to shore is unusual, as well as unforgettable.
Another photo of the Snowy and 3 of the Long-tailed Ducks are at my eBird checklist for the day, URL below.
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. 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.
I walked over to Montrose on February 10, the first time I’ve been there since the polar air and bitter temps set in a week ago. Not surprisingly, Lake Michigan was mostly frozen, though an area of open water extended from the harbor mouth and along the shore up to the fishing pier. Hundreds of waterfowl and gulls were here, mostly Red-breasted and Common Mergansers, Common Goldeneye, and Herring Gulls. Best were a female type Black Scoter, a female Long-tailed Duck, seven Iceland Gulls, and a first cycle Lesser Black-backed Gull. A frozen Lake Michigan concentrates waterfowl in the remaining open water; these conditions are great for birding but admittedly hard on the birds. More photos are at my eBird checklist for the morning, URL below.