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My Kinda Town

Chicago at dusk, from the roof of the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower. Photo by Greg Neise.

Chicago at dusk, from the roof of the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower. Photo by Greg Neise.

1972 was the year that I came to life. I was born nine years earlier in California, but I don’t remember a minute of any of it. In May of 1972 I saw a notice posted on the doors of the Bird House at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. It utterly changed my life.

The notice on the door announced, “Bird Walks — Monday, Wednesday and Sunday. 7:00 am. Meet here. Sponsored by the Ft. Dearborn Chapter of the Illinois Audubon Society.” I grew up across the street from that zoo. By the time I was 9 I was obsessed with animals, showing particular interest in birds. Every day after school and on weekends I was at the zoo.

Of course, I was at the inaugural walk, led by Doug Anderson. Doug was a probation officer who was heavily involved in birding and nature in Chicago. He led bird walks in Lincoln Park and Jackson Park. He was a docent at Lincoln Park Zoo and served on the boards of Chicago Audubon, Ft. Dearborn Audubon and the Chicago Ornithological Society.

Before I knew what was happening I was ditching 5th grade to look for birds in Lincoln Park.

Lincoln Park was, and still is, the premier birding spot in Chicago. Every day I worked the ponds, the beaches and harbors. I still went on the bird walks, which had gained traction, and were being led, in addition to Doug, by luminaries like author Jerry Sullivan. But I was going farther afield, and hooked up with the birders whose names are familiar to many of us: Charlie Clark, Larry Balch, Steven Mlodinow, Joel Greenberg, William Jarvis, Jim Landing, and many more. There was a “lakefront tradition” in the 1970s and 80s in Chicago. Birders scoured the lakefront parks — all of them, on a very regular basis — and they found all kinds of great birds.

Perhaps the most famous was the 1978 Ross’ Gull, discovered by Andy Sigler at Wilmette Harbor on November 19 of that year. Andy was new on the scene then, and his report was taken with a grain of salt. Ten days later, another birder reported a Ross’s Gull at a beach some 20 miles to the south in Lincoln Park. This was too much of a coincidence and “the lakefront crew” came out in force the next day. The bird was relocated and pandemonium ensued. This was the second record of the species in the lower 48 and nearly 300 people came from far and wide to look for it.

Birders seeking the Ross's Gull at North Ave. beach. November 30, 1978. Photo by Dale Pontius.

Birders seeking the Ross’s Gull at North Ave. beach, November 30, 1978. Note the Questar scopes, and the Zeiss 10 X 40 Dialyt binoculars with the rust-colored Balch custom anti-drizzle tubes. Photo by Dale Pontius.

It was seen for a short while at North Avenue beach on the morning of November 30 by a handful of people, myself included. But when it was picked out of the hundreds of milling Bonaparte’s Gulls by Rich Biss, I was about a half mile away up the beach. By the time word had gotten to me, and I ran down there, the bird was flying away. I watched it through my scope. It looked like this:

___—O—___

It never turned, banked, or anything. It just kept going and going and going out of sight. I was standing near Larry Balch (who would become president of the ABA in 1983) as everyone was scrambling to head down the lakefront to where it might be going next. Somehow, I wound up in the front passenger seat of Larry’s iconic white Volvo wagon as he raced down Lake Shore Drive in a snow storm, all to chase a gull. It was nirvana for a dorky 15 year-old.

Larry had the radios with him that he’d used on Attu, and Jerry Rosenband had one too. As we raced south on LSD (what Chicagoans call Lake Shore Drive) near Ohio St., Jerry called on the radio, saying the bird was just seen 5 miles north at Montrose Harbor!

There was a stop light at Ohio, with a traffic cop standing in the middle of the street trying to get people through the awkward intersection in what was becoming a blizzard. Larry pulled a U-turn around him—the cop was furiously blowing his whistle, and started to chase us on foot! I was living the dream.

We got away. We didn’t get the bird. I went home. Larry and Jerry stayed out … and saw the Ross’s Gull; c’est la vie. [I finally did get to see a Ross’s Gull in 2010 … but it’s still my #1 nemesis in Illinois.]

Connecticut Warbler at Montrose Point. Photo by Jeff Skrentny.

Connecticut Warbler at Montrose Point. Photo by Jeff Skrentny.

Chicago doesn’t have the kind of birding that cities with huge species lists like, say, New York, San Francisco, San Diego, or Miami can boast of. In fact, as far as a birding destination, there’s really only one reason to visit the city proper. And that is Connecticut Warblers. During the last 10 days of May, the Chicago lakefront parks are the best places to get good looks of this very elusive species. These same parks are excellent places to find Nelson’s Sparrow during both spring and fall migrations.

Or when an ABA-Area first record shows up—like the Chicago Elaenia—which was almost certainly a Small-billed Elaenia.

But Chicago can boast of a large and vibrant birding community. The metro area supports 5 birding organizations. During nice May mornings, the Montrose Bird Sanctuary will be crawling with birders. With that many eyes, good stuff is always found. An incredible number of vagrants have been found there including Black Rail, Wandering Tattler, Ross’s, Black-tailed, and Ivory Gulls, Royal and Sandwich Terns, Groove-billed Ani, Grace’s, Kirtland’s, and Townsend’s Warblers, and most recently, Curve-billed Thrasher. Bob Hughes’s Montrose Primer has great info about birding the area.

–=====–

It was like a scene from the movie, The Big Year … a rather quiet May morning and birders were combing the 15-acre sanctuary. Birds were everywhere. Birders were everywhere. I was doing a Big Day in Lincoln Park (finished with 106 species, not bad for a 1,200-acre city park), and our 3-man team was scouring the area, but trying to avoid other birders to stay within the ABA Big Day rules.

Suddenly, Joel Greenberg—with a stentorian howl that sounded like Jim Cornelison singing the National Anthem at a Chicago Blackhawks game—bellows: YELLOW-THROATED WARBLER! A stampede of birders rush to his voice, me included. Yellow-throated Warbler is a very tough bird to get in Chicago. It was only the second one I’d seen in 40 years of birding the city. We had 24 species of warblers in the park that day.

No look at Chicago birding would be complete without a mention of Chicago’s Lost Marshes, a term coined by Dr. William Beecher in the 1970s. He was referring to Lake Calumet. What was once a huge marsh of Everglades proportions, has been reduced to a few ponds and wet areas amidst the industry and garbage surrounding Chicago’s port. It was a birding paradise.

Lake Calumet marshes, 1989. Photos by Greg Neise.

Lake Calumet marshes, 1989. Photos by Greg Neise.

The shorebirding was amazing. One summer I saw 2 different Curlew Sandpipers there. The first ABA-Area record (and one of only two) Large-billed Tern was at Lake Calumet in September of 1949. The tops of the old dumps—like in the picture above—were covered in construction rubble, to keep the garbage and dust from being blown away. The waste management company had no way of knowing that this would be key breeding habitat for Common Nighthawks! The numbers of nesting herons and egrets, especially Black-crowned Night-Herons, was in the thousands.

The area was a maze of ponds, pools, ditches, and dirt roads. You could spend a week wandering around, and you never knew what might turn up. But today, most of the region is behind razor wire, and MARSEC 1 security warnings. Most of the area has been overrun by Phragmites grass, and many of the wet areas have been filled in. But in the past few years the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the City of Chicago have taken an interest in the area, and plans are underway to restore one of the biggest marshes and turn the former illegal toxic waste dumps into a mountain-biking park. It will make for a lot more traffic and noise, to be sure. But at the moment it’s completely inaccessible and the habitat’s wrecked. So ultimately it’ll be a win for us and the birds, and maybe a part of Chicago’s Lost Marsh will return.

My family was pure Hollywood (my dad was an actor, and my mother a dancer), and I was born in Beverly Hills. But my heart started beating in Chicago, when I discovered birds.

The author with Dr. William Beecher at the Calumet marshes, August 1979. Photo by William Jarvis.

The author at 16, with Dr. William Beecher at the Calumet marshes, August 1979. Photo by William Jarvis.

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