A View From The Other Side Of The Pond Spring Is Coming A Guest Blog By Jake

America does warblers very well indeed here a stunning Black-throated Green Warbler.

Hello! My name is Jake Archbell, I’m a Canadian who’s been living in Chicago for the last five years. I wasn’t a birder when I moved down here, so I had no idea how good Chicago can be for birding. As it turns out, Chicago has way more to offer than the magic hedge (although it really is excellent!). The closure of the Lake Michigan waterfront in the spring and summer of last year because of COVID-19 forced me further afield than I normally venture and has changed how I bird around the city, even with the lakeshore path and the beloved magic hedge back open!

It started innocently enough, riding my bike to the closest park in April, where Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers drilled their horizontal rows in trees and Coopers Hawks chased squirrels. I soon realized that this park was connected to a bike path, however, leading to even more parks further afield. The next park up brought some of the first small songbirds of the spring season, the beautiful Black Throated Green Warbler and personable Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. Neon-orange Baltimore Orioles and occasionally their burnt-orange cousins the Orchard Oriole would sing from treetops. Chunky little Pied-billed grebes, with their characteristic dark bill stripe, swam around in the Chicago river.

Following the river north via a patchwork of roads and vaguely connected bike paths eventually led me to the Cook County Forest Preserves. Miles of paths run through forests, meadows, and wetlands, mostly following the Chicago and Des Plaines rivers. I would ride my bike to a forest preserve, lock it up, then spend hours hiking around the woods. I found orangey-yellow Prothonotary Warblers foraging for insects along the riverbanks, Ruddy Ducks with their robins-egg blue bills swimming in lagoons, and brilliant Red-headed Woodpeckers tapping out their songs high up in dead trees.

The beautiful Prothonotary Warbler. All photos by @jakebirds on Instagram

When the lakefront opened again later in the summer, I found myself back at Montrose Point and the magic hedge, watching “our” resident Piping Plovers as they reared their new clutch of chicks. Other waders like Willets, Black-bellied Plovers and Spotted Sandpipers showed up along the beach areas, while Caspian terns, with their sharp back caps and bright orange bills, flew over the lake and Golden-winged Warblers, smartly patterned in back and white with yellow wing patches and crest, hopped around the fabled hedge.

Fall found me looking for owls all over the city. The lakeshore brought Short-eared Owls, which were amazing to watch as they hassled Ring-billed Gulls out over the lake and hunted over the dunes in the early morning light. One particularly lucky late afternoon walk through one of the forest preserves turned up an Eastern Screech Owl hiding in the crook of a tree. Not long after that encounter, my wife heard a Great Horned Owl hooting in the distance, which we managed to track down perched high up over a marsh in the fading light. We were also extremely fortunate this winter with a southern irruption of “northern” birds. Common Redpolls, with their fine streaking and neat red caps, were a great addition to our regular residents like the brilliant red Northern Cardinal and the ever-unafraid Black-capped Chickadees.

Short-eared Owl photo by Jake

Now it is early March, and it finally feels like spring is on its way. I’ve been working a little later Thursday nights to start work a little later Friday mornings lately, and this past week I found myself on dawn (ish) patrol out at one of the forest preserves about a half hour south of the city. Despite warming temperatures there is still a lot of snow in the woods and on the trails, and for a while all I heard was the sound of my boots crunching in the snow. Just as I was starting to think the morning might be a bit of a bust, a dark flash of wings caught my eye at the top of a tree. It looked big, and I held my breath as I raised my binoculars. Yes! A Pileated Woodpecker, large, dark, with a fantastic red crest was busy tapping away at the top of a tree. I don’t see them every time I go out, but evidence of their presence is all over the forest in the rectangular holes they leave in dead trees while searching for insects.

Pileated Woodpecker by Jake

Further along, the woods started to wake up with the goofy calls of White-breasted Nuthatches and the peeps of smaller Downy Woodpeckers. The loud nasal calls of Red-winged Blackbirds, only recently arrived from their wintering grounds further south, were a welcome morning soundtrack as they perched high on trees surrounding marshes in the early sunshine. The sound almost becomes irritating in its ubiquity later in the season, but they are one of the earliest markers of spring in my mind, and I love hearing them this time of year. Two Common Grackle, their long black tails clearly outlined, flew overhead, another bird that I tend not to spend a lot of time on later in the year, but another quite welcome reminder of the changing seasons.

I’d been hoping to find Tufted Titmouse, a gregarious grey bird with a great tuft and a big personality that I often see in these woods, but they didn’t show today, so I opted to try my luck at a nearby nature center with some feeders. The Little Red Schoolhouse is where I first saw these birds and I hoped they would elect to put in an appearance today as well. When I got there, large flocks of American Goldfinch were busy at the feeders, with Blue Jays and Red-bellied Woodpeckers chasing each other through the trees above. But still no Tufted Titmouse! I walked another short loop in a last-ditch attempt to find them: no dice. But a Brown Creeper, nearly invisible against a tree trunk, was a nice consolation prize. And on the way out I found a Tree Swallow flying over the still-frozen pond, checking out a nest box! I’ve never seen one so early in the year, and it more than made up for the miss with the Titmouse.

The (sometimes elusive) Tufted Titmouse, with a bonus Dark-eyed Junco

It’s been a year since COVID-19 altered our lives forever. Throughout it all, birding has been a source of comfort and a reason to get out of the house. The closure of the lakefront forced me to explore new areas around the city and led me to appreciate just how lucky I am to have such great natural resources so close to home. Where and how I birded changed with the seasons and COVID-19 restrictions, and it will change again as my wife and I welcome the birth of our first child in a few short weeks. With any luck, he will take an interest in the natural world too and we will have a set of binoculars in his tiny hands before too long! In the meantime, I’ll continue to be grateful for the people and the places that make birding in the Windy City so welcoming and enjoyable. If you ever make the trip (whenever that is safe to do again), spend some time away from the magic hedge and see everything else this great city has to offer.

Of course a wonderful way to see more birds is to join one of our Birdwatching Trips and learn a lot about the birds you are enjoying too. We have tours suitable for all from beginners to experienced birders that are seeking particular species. Just drop us a line here and we can arrange a perfect custom tour for you!


We look forward to enjoying wonderful birds with you as soon as it is safe.

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