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.
Great Black-backed Gull (click to see the larger version)
Avian activity has slowed considerably at Montrose. I’ve been topping out at about 20 species on my two hour morning visits since December 1. Things won’t improve much until late February when spring migration begins, and if the harbor and Lake Michigan freeze it will only get worse. Common Mergansers and Common Goldeneye, the two main wintering ducks, haven’t arrived yet in numbers because of the mild weather we’ve been experiencing. They’ll start to show up when it gets seriously cold. The big flocks of Red-breasted Mergansers from November have pulled out. Lake Michigan now feels lifeless and empty without them. Common Redpolls are still around but for how long is anyone’s guess. Most of the sparrows from mid-November have left, with only Dark-eyed Juncos and American Tree Sparrows remaining. Despite the doldrums, we have had a few interesting species. An adult light morph Snow Goose has been keeping company with Canada Geese. Scan any group of Canada Geese if you’re looking for it. You could also find other uncommon geese like Cackling or Greater White-fronted by looking through the Canadas. An American Black Duck, an unusual bird for Montrose, has been with Mallards, usually in the harbor. On December 4 I saw an immature Great Black-backed Gull on the public beach. As always, check the Montrose Point eBird Hotspot for current sightings.
Suggestions for Winter Birding at Montrose
I have some suggestions for winter birding at Montrose. As long as the harbor remains open it’s worth checking for waterfowl, gulls, and grebes. Long-tailed Ducks, scoters, Red-necked and Western Grebes, and several unusual gulls have been seen in the harbor in early winter. Once the harbor freezes over this won’t be an option. The hawthorns near the restroom building on the south side of the harbor are full of berries as of early December. On December 4 I had American Robins, European Starlings, and a few House Finches gorging on these berries, and something rare like a Pine Grosbeak or Bohemian Waxwing is possible while the berry supply lasts. Finally, 2020 isn’t shaping up to be a flight year for Snowy Owls but a few could still show up. The best places to look for them are the beach, Dunes, and fishing pier.
Red-breasted Merganser (click to see the larger version)
A female Red-breasted Merganser appears to be over summering at Montrose. She’s been seen near the fishhook pier and inside the boat harbor, where I saw and photographed her today.
I also saw my first juvenile Northern Rough-winged Swallows of the season today. Northern Rough-winged Swallows nest on the fishhook pier and can often be seen hawking insects over the dunes. They, along with other swallows, like to perch on the yellow rope that cordons off the protected areas of the dunes.
The Curve-billed Thrasher was obviously the big story at Montrose today but there were a few other birds of interest. Late this afternoon I had 6 Semipalmated and 1 White-rumped Sandpiper inside the protected area at the east end of the beach. This might be the latest spring White-rumped I’ve ever seen. Also, the continuing female Red-breasted Merganser was inside the harbor.
I birded Montrose for a little while this morning, June 6. At this time of the year I don’t have very high expectations and I go more for the exercise than anything else, but I always take my bins just in case. Here’s what a I had:
Red-breasted Merganser – 1, the continuing female in the lake at the east end of the beach
Green-winged Teal – 1 female in the lake at the east end of the beach
Black-crowned Night-Heron – 1 at the east end of the harbor
Dunlin – 1, the continuing bird in the fluddle next to the fishhook pier inside the protected area
Semipalmated Sandpiper – 16 on the beach inside the protected area
Great Crested Flycatcher – 1
Alder Flycatcher – 1
Blue Jay – 1
Mourning Warbler – 2, 1 female and 1 male
Dickcissel – 1
The nesting Red-winged Blackbirds are now in kamikaze mode. I was repeatedly dive bombed by an aggressive male near the forbidden zone.