Thousands of Sandhill Cranes migrated over Chicago on November 18 and 19. This is an annual occurrence in late fall when we get intense cold fronts and brisk west winds. These conditions are necessary to force them south out of Wisconsin and east as far as the city. Birders throughout Chicago and northeastern Illinois were reporting big numbers, as well as a few rarer Whooping Cranes. Several hundred Sandhills made it to Montrose, which is unusual, and a testament to how strong the winds were. The Sandhill Cranes in the photo flew right down the Lake Michigan shoreline and over Cricket Hill on their way south.
A Sandhill Crane flew over Montrose Harbor on December 13. This is unusual for a couple reasons. Sandhill Cranes are uncommon migrants at Montrose. Their fall migration is usually a few miles west of us, so we miss most of them (see the recent November 22, 2021 Sandhill Cranes post for insight into this). Possible reasons for this scarcity include the intimidating wall of high rises along Lake Shore Drive and the lack of thermal formation over Lake Michigan. Sandhills are thermal seeking and thermal dependent during migration. These rising columns of warm air make flying long distances easier for them. If you’ve ever watched a group of Sandhills in flight you’ve probably noticed them wheeling and gaining altitude, looking for and finding thermals. Sandhills are also highly social birds, so seeing a lone crane is atypical. The Montrose bird looked lost and out of place, like it took a wrong turn and got separated from its friends.
2021/2022 Winter Birding Tips
Winter is the slow season at Montrose. It’s just a fact of life. You could consider yourself lucky and doing well if you saw 20 species there in a morning. As such, there are some things to do and birds to look for.
- This is shaping up to be a good winter for Snowy Owls. Though none have been reported from Montrose yet, several have been seen just to the north and south along Lake Michigan. The best places to check for Snowies are the beach and Dunes and on the fishing pier, especially after it ices over.
- The fruiting trees are hosting numbers of robins and starlings. That’s probably all you will see but there’s always a chance a more unusual frugivore will show up, like a Townsend’s Solitaire or Varied Thrush.
- The open waters of Lake Michigan and the harbor are attracting large numbers of ducks, mainly Red-breasted Mergansers, but as long as the water remains open, an unusual duck, loon, or grebe is possible. Don’t forget to check the harbor mouth too.
- Several expected sparrows have been turning up in the Butterfly Garden, especially towards the north end in the hawthorns. Where groups of common birds gather, something unusual may find its way.
As always, don’t forget to check the Montrose Point eBird Hotspot for current sightings.
A big push of Sandhill Cranes took place over Chicago on November 22, 2021. These birds were migrating en masse, responding to an intense cold front and strong northwest winds, typical behavior for Sandhills in late fall. When I started to see flocks from my apartment around noon I walked over to Graceland Cemetery to get a better look. From Graceland I could see multiple flocks drifting south one to two miles to the west and 300 to 500 feet high, possibly following the Chicago River or Western Avenue (the photo shows how I was seeing them). We rarely get big numbers of Sandhills like this at Montrose, unless the wind is blowing very hard from the west, and it wasn’t on November 22.
Sandhill Crane migration is fairly predictable in late fall – be alert for strong cold fronts with west winds. They also seem to move better on days with clear or at most partly cloudy skies. Heavy overcast and precipitation discourage them from flying.
A strong cold front will move through Chicago over the weekend of November 12 – 14. Daily high temperatures will be in the low 40s and winds will be westerly, at least for Saturday and Sunday, and in the 10 to 15 mile per hour range. This is an excellent setup for a late fall push of birds. These conditions often produce Short-eared Owls and Franklin’s Gulls, and we could see a few hawks migrating down Lake Michigan, especially Northern Harriers. Sandhill Cranes also move on these conditions, though we rarely see large numbers of them at Montrose. There’s always the possibility of something extraordinary showing up – it is November after all.
I live on the outskirts of Wrigleyville in Chicago, about a mile from Montrose Point and its famous bird sanctuary. My third-floor apartment offers a decent and relatively unobstructed view to the west. When I’m home I often look out my windows to see if anything is flying by. I’ve had some interesting birds and birding experiences over the years – Bald Eagles and Peregrine Falcons, big flights of Common Nighthawks in late summer, and when the conditions are right, flocks of Sandhill Cranes in late fall. On the morning of October 28, 11 Sandhills came in from the north, not far from my apartment building. Sandhill Cranes are less common close to Lake Michigan – I rarely get large flights of them, unless the wind is strong and from the west, which it was on October 28. When those conditions occur, and I have time to look, I sometimes see hundreds or even thousands moving south. I didn’t have a lot of time that day, so those 11 Sandhills were all I saw.
If you live in Chicago and want to see Sandhill Cranes, check the skies from late October to early December on days with strong west winds following the passage of a cold front. You might see them under other weather conditions but they move en masse on days with west winds, the stronger the better.
I spent an enjoyable morning at Montrose today, April 1. It was on the chilly side, but the sun was out and the birding was productive. I ended up with 46 species in about 3 hours, highlights including:
White-winged Scoter – group of 9 flying north
Red-throated Loon – group of 4 flying north
Common Loon – 6 flying north
Sandhill Crane – 2 flying south over the point
Bonaparte’s Gull – group of 9 flying north
Le Conte’s Sparrow – 1 in the dunes
Western Meadowlark – 1, seen and heard singing in the dunes
The bird of the day goes to the Western Meadowlark. I’ve only had a couple WEMEs in my 30+ years birding Montrose, so this is a pretty good bird for me. The Sandhill Cranes and Le Conte’s Sparrow were nice bonus birds. Link to my eBird checklist below.