Herring and Ring-billed Gulls feeding in the algae mat at Montrose Beach (click to see the larger version)
The title of this post sounds like the title of a horror or monster movie — “Return of the Green Gunk!” On December 14 I was pleasantly surprised to find an extensive algae* mat at the east end of Montrose Beach. This algae mat developed when a powerful early winter storm churned up Lake Michigan and dumped large amounts of the stuff on the beach. I also noticed a group of Herring and Ring-billed Gulls picking through the algae for food. From what I could tell, and from what I’ve seen in the past, the gulls were hunting crayfish that washed in with the algae. Why does this matter? Because groups of active, feeding gulls attract more gulls that could include something unusual. Now that winter is here, there are multiple, possible rare gulls to consider. The algae could also attract a rare shorebird like a Purple Sandpiper or Red Phalarope. So if you venture out to Montrose this winter don’t forget to check the beach, and if there’s an algae mat, check it too. Once the beach gets covered in ice the algae mat won’t be accessible to gulls and shorebirds.
Only a birder gets excited about algae mats, right?
Longnose Gar in Montrose Harbor (click to see the larger version)
Continuing the fish theme this summer, I saw and photographed a Longnose Gar in Montrose Harbor on July 13. Gar are distinctive as a group but specific identification can be challenging (and I’m hardly a fish expert). My gar was about 2 feet long and had heavy, dark spotting on the body. It was swimming slowly and close to the surface, enabling me to get diagnostic photos. After some research, I narrowed down the options to Spotted and Longnose Gar, and after sharing the photos online several fish experts weighed in and confirmed it as a Longnose Gar. This is the first gar of any kind I’ve seen on Lake Michigan and the most unusual fish I’ve seen at Montrose. More photos are on my Facebook page, URL below. Also, see the Fish Archives on this blog for more fish stories from Montrose.
You may have heard or even noticed that the water level on Lake Michigan is very high this summer. According to NOAA, it’s at a 22 year high and near the all-time high. I took this photo at the mouth of Montrose Harbor in July 2020. The water is so high it’s spilling over the piers at the harbor mouth. In past years fishermen would be using these piers; the only creatures using the piers now are waterfowl and gulls.
Black Crappie in Montrose Harbor (click to see the larger version)
The fish in Montrose Harbor are taking advantage of the decrease in human activity and putting on a show. I’ve been checking the north side of the harbor on my morning walks and I’ve noticed an abundance and variety of fish I didn’t notice before Chicago closed the lakefront parks. Some of the different species include Black Crappie (a Montrose first for me), numbers of Smallmouth Bass and Freshwater Drum, and the ever-present Common Carp. Some of the carp are huge. I’ve also seen large schools of smaller fish, either Alewife or Smelt. It’s noteworthy that Montrose Harbor is far from being a pristine body of water. The many boats release gasoline into the water and there’s often garbage floating on the surface and debris in the water. Despite this, aquatic life is thriving. More fish photos from Montrose Harbor are on my Facebook page, URL below. Also, see the Fish Archives on this blog for more fish stories from Montrose.
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.
Lake Michigan can be a violent body of water. Such was the case on January 11. An intense winter storm produced 20-30 m.p.h northeast winds that kicked up 15-foot waves, pounding the Chicago lakefront. I took this video near the base of the fishing pier and southeast corner of the Dunes at Montrose. Note the downed light pole and river of water flowing up the footpath. Not the best day to be on the fishing pier I’d say. Click the square in the lower right corner of the video to enlarge it to full-screen size.