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.
Black Scoter (click to see the larger version)
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.
February 10, 2021
Today was a good day to look at Lake Michigan – overcast skies, a flat surface, and excellent visibility most of the way to the horizon, perfect conditions for looking for birds on the water. While scanning the lake I found several groups of White-winged Scoters, a female Black Scoter, and 4 Long-tailed Ducks. The White-winged Scoters (~20) were scattered in small flocks 1/5 to 1/4 mile offshore from the fishing pier. With one of these flocks was a female Black Scoter, a good bird for Montrose in the spring. Finally, I saw a group of Long-tailed Ducks flying south far offshore. These birds landed eventually but disappeared because of distance. Also of note were about a dozen Double-crested Cormorants on the water crib a couple of miles offshore from Montrose, the beginnings of the nesting colony. Link to my eBird checklist for the day below.
Baird’s Sandpiper (click to see the larger version)
I wasn’t even going to bird this morning (November 4) because of rain in the forecast, but when I looked out my window at 7:30 I saw no rain, so I grabbed my gear and headed over to Montrose. I tallied a whopping 20 species for my effort, unimpressive even by early November standards. But, BUT, 25% of that tally consisted of good birds – Harlequin Duck (off the end of the fishing pier, found by Krzysztof Kurlyowicz), Black Scoter (2 flybys, found by Steve Huggins), Red-necked Grebe (flyby), Piping Plover, and Baird’s Sandpiper. The Baird’s (2 juveniles) represent one of the latest records of this species for Montrose, continuing the trend for late birds started by the Piping Plover.
It’s hard to go wrong in November.
Link to my eBird checklist for the day below.
I spent a couple hours at Montrose this morning, November 24. I saw very little of interest, the highlight being 3 southbound Black Scoters. Typically at this time of the year one can expect to see loons, grebes, and a variety of waterfowl resting on Lake Michigan or flying by. I saw no loons, a couple Horned Grebes, and except for the scoters only Red-breasted Mergansers on the lake. November is the best month of the year for rare and unusual species, but the extended period of mild weather for the first 3 weeks of the month made for slow and unremarkable birding. Indian Summer does not do a fall birder good. Bring on the Arctic fronts. Link to my meager and unimpressive eBird checklist below.