Turkey Vulture. Photo courtesy of Tamima Itani. (click to see the larger version)
It’s axiomatic among Chicago lakefront birders that southwest winds in spring produce lots of migrants. Today, March 8, reaffirmed that maxim. I ended up with 42 species in a couple of hours of birding, including a number of new birds for the year. Large numbers of blackbirds and Canada Geese were moving on the south winds, and we had a number of unusual sightings. Best for the morning were
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.
Long-tailed Duck (click to see the larger version)
A female Long-tailed Duck has been hanging around the fishing pier at Montrose for the last few days. On October 28 I saw her near the end of the pier on the Lake Michigan side. Long-tailed Ducks are uncommon but regular late fall through early spring visitors to Montrose.
October 28 was an interesting day with a nice mix of birds. I ended up with 49 species for about 2 hours of effort, and 60 species were reported to eBird for the day. Some of my highlights include
March 26 saw an influx of migrants, most notably American Robins, blackbirds, and several types of sparrows. There were also good numbers of ducks on Lake Michigan, particularly Red-breasted Mergansers, and a few ducks moving north. This happens every spring when we get warm fronts and south winds. I tallied 46 species in a little less than 2 hours of effort, including a number of first of seasons. My highlights
We usually get a day or 2 each spring when large numbers of ducks move north like this. The numbers of Northern Shovelers and Green-winged Teal were most impressive. Interestingly, the winds were from the north and strong, which means these birds were flying into a headwind. I also had 2 flyby Common Loons, my first of the year.
In the above photo, note the spoon-shaped bills of the Northern Shovelers, a field mark that makes them easy to identify, even in flight.
White-winged Scoters (click to see the larger version)
It’s White-winged Scoter time in Chicago. February is the month when White-winged Scoters return to Lake Michigan in numbers. I had about 40 at Montrose this morning. A few were resting on the water and a group of 30 flew north past the fishing pier close to shore. The structure on the horizon is the Wilson Avenue Crib, part of the water distribution system for Chicago and a little over 2 miles offshore. This particular crib is no longer operational. White-winged Scoters should be reliable at Montrose through early April.