Taking Flight: Birding Hot Spots in Millennium Reserve
Walter Marcisz walks quietly through Indian Ridge Marsh at 122nd Street and Torrence Avenue in Chicago. Suddenly, he stops and puts down a small, portable telescope through which he sees a striking scene in the marsh: three different species of ducks are swimming side-by-side. Not far from them is a swan, gracefully tilting its neck and surveying the scene.
It’s the kind of bird-watching moment that has delighted and fascinated Marcisz for more than 50 years. When asked to name a few favorite birding spots in the region, Marcisz hesitates. “There’s so much here,” he says. “It’s hard to choose.”
Though he is a year-round birder, Marcisz says that “May is peak time. Good weather – usually – new growth, and everything is alive.” It’s a perfect time, he says, to visit a few of the many spots that are ideal for birding in the Millennium Reserve.
Marcisz, a leading birder in the region, currently leads birding tours, monitors bird activities for Audubon Chicago Region and otherwise immerses himself in his passion for birding.
At Indian Ridge Marsh, he says, a white-faced ibis – a wading bird that is hard to find in Illinois – visited the site last summer. In August, three snowy egrets appeared. Meanwhile, on a recent spring day, an egret appeared to be slowly dancing across the marsh, though Marcisz said the bird “was just hunting for small fish.” He paused to say that the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1918 (which resulted in part from advocacy efforts by the National Audubon Society) helped save the great egret from extinction.
A short drive away, Wolf Lake (part of which is located at William W. Powers State Recreation Area at 12949 South Avenue O in Chicago) boasts a wide range of recreational options, including hunting, fishing and biking. “For birding, Wolf Lake has traditionally been a very good place for migrating water fowl and native swans, especially in the early spring,” Marcisz says. On the north side of Wolf Lake, there’s a wide variety of migrant warblers in spring and fall. “There’s lots of noise and mating,” says Marcisz. “It’s just a songfest in there, and a feast for the eyes: You can track down orange, yellow and blue warblers.”
Next stop, Eggers Woods (112th Street and Avenue E in Chicago), which features woodland, marsh and open country habitats – each with their own assemblage of bird species. “Eggers is not very far from Lake Michigan,” says Marcisz, “and that has a great impact on what birds you’ll see. Thousands of birds migrate in the spring and fall at night, and then in the morning they’ll stop at Eggers and other places for food and to rest. The month of May is exciting – there’s not only a great diversity of birds, but they are colorful and in full song.”
The Wolf Lake and Eggers sites are also notable because they are among 23 “ecologically important” sites in Millennium Reserve that will be protected and restored through the Conservation Compact, a partnership between the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Forest Preserves Commission, Chicago Park District and The Nature Conservancy. Implementing natural areas in the Conservation Compact is a priority of Millennium Reserve.
Meanwhile, Marcisz offers a few birding tips to visitors. “Birding is almost always better in the morning – especially during migration,” he says. “I recommend that people bring binoculars and a field guide – and dress in layers. Plus, spring rains are frequent, so wear something that gives you a little rain resistance.”
Nat Miller, Director of Conservation for Audubon Society Chicago (a Partner of Millennium Reserve), says that birding can “become an easy thing to fall in love with. We want to be in tune with nature – and nature also provides great places to go with family, a community group or by yourself. It’s just amazing to know you can go to an area in the Millennium Reserve and see dozens of species of birds.”