While summer blooms elsewhere are winding down, the Dixon Prairie is still alive with many fall flowers.
Asters, sawtooth sunflowers, gaura, and goldenrod are going strong. All of them are abuzz with bees and other insects. Grasshoppers dance from plant to plant. Butterflies fuel up for a last fling or long journey.
Grasses, some with tiny fragrant flowers, sway gracefully; many have grown more than 7 feet tall in this one growing season. Early morning dew transforms the seedheads into works of art. Silken strands of unseen spiders glow in the sunlight. Flocks of goldfinches munch on seeds, stocking up for winter, chirping their happy tunes, while shy sparrows occasionally pop up from the shadows, giving us a glimpse of their subtle beauty. Milkweed seeds blow gracefully in the wind.
The prairie truly must be walked to be appreciated. There is so much diversity, and so many stories to tell.
Touch a compass plant leaf on even the hottest day and it will be cool to the touch—with roots going down 14 feet, they pull up water that is chilled underground.
Monarchs live in symbiosis with milkweed plants (as do many other insects). Look closely and you may see a whole world on a milkweed plant.
Surprises can be anywhere—a hummingbird zipping by for a quick sip, a great blue heron flying overhead, drama as a hawk dives down to grab a vole. Fall on the prairie is colorful, alive, and a place of great wonder not to be missed.
A partial transcript of my first official bird walk:
Me: What was that call?
Expert birder: A chipmunk.
Me: What’s that big brown thing in the branches? It’s shaped kinda like a hawk.
Expert: Dead leaves. We call that a fake-out.
Expert: Do you hear that rattle? I hear a kingfisher!
I really do not hear the rattle, but I feel a rush of excitement as I chase my guide along the trail of the Barbara Brown Nature Reserve at the southeast corner of the Chicago Botanic Garden. The tree-lined pond is one of many different habitats that make the Garden an excellent place for birders experienced and otherwise. Adding to my great fortune are golden sunshine—lighting the first red, orange, and yellow leaves of autumn—and the presence of Al Stokie, who comes to the Garden every week to report on shorebirds and other avian visitors. I’m tagging along on one of his early morning surveys and gleaning basic principles of birding.
Our first stop was the expansive deck of the Kleinman Family Cove, one of Al’s favorite spots for viewing the North Lake. In just a few weeks the surface would be filling with ducks stopping to rest on their way south for the winter. They’ll be followed in November by grebes and red-breasted mergansers. Native plants surrounding the cove attract a variety of birds, but most of the tiny warblers left for warmer climes weeks ago. McDonald Woods, a restored native oak woodland, is the place to go in the spring to catch the warblers’ return and, if you’ve got really good eyes, a place to spot owls in the winter.
“It’s all seasonal,” says Stokie. “Every month of the year you can go out and see different things.” I like that idea: The Garden as an ever-changing landscape of birds.
It’s all about the food
We continue along the North Lake road and find two more potential hot spots for birds. A peninsula of land supports a grove of evergreens loaded with cones—a big draw for wintering pine siskins and—if you’re lucky—crossbills. Down the road a bit, you come to an Emergency Call Box. Look past it and you’ll see large junipers growing along the exterior wall near the Garden’s northwest corner. That’s where a very rare Bohemian waxwing, feasting on the juniper berries, was last seen in the Garden.
Walk early, and walk often
We are heading south now, along the Garden’s West Road, past a restored streambed, lush with native plants—a habitat that provides lots of seeds and insects. The best time for birding tends to be the four hours or so following sunrise, so getting up early can have its rewards. Persistence also pays off, Al explains: “It’s a matter of odds. If you look in one spot ten times, you’ll probably see something.” Just then we catch sight of movement in the shrubs. Al first identifies the little bird by the way it waves its tail up and down—an (ahem) telltale sign of the palm warbler, one of the last warblers to head south for the winter.
Flocks of goldfinches—displaying olive drab winter plumage—are diving in and out of the tall forbs and grasses of the Dixon Prairie. Niche ecosystems within the prairie provide food and shelter for many different types of birds at different times of the year. Hummingbirds are drawn to the red blooms of royal catchfly (Silene regia) that flower on the dry gravel hills in the summer, while the prairie wetlands attract swamp and other types of sparrows. Turns out sparrows can be tricky to identify, unless—as it happened—one stops to feed on the path in front of you. Al identifies it as a white-crowned sparrow. “For every bird you identify, there are probably five or six you do not get a look at—or you get a lousy look and don’t know what it is,” Al Stokie.
Watch the weather
Shorebirds are drawn to the southwest corner of the Garden, an overflow area for the Skokie River with plenty of muddy shores. “Old Faithful,” a white egret nicknamed by Stokie, comes in for a landing, joining a well-camouflaged green heron and a killdeer, the hardiest of the shorebirds and a late migrator. Most of the sandpipers—Al’s particular interest—have left already. In a flash of movement, the heron fishes a frog out of the water. We witness its slow death through our binoculars, though I have to admit I am still struggling to focus and aim mine. Standing on the sunny, breezy path it’s hard to believe a cold front will be moving through in a few days. That’s likely to bring in a new wave of migratory birds, in this case, sparrows.
Find a mentor
A beginning birder who comes out on his own with a bird book and a pair of binoculars is likely to be overwhelmed, Stokie said. This makes perfect sense to me. Without Al at my side, so much of the experience would have…er…flown right over my head. Take that belted kingfisher back at the Barbara Brown Nature Reserve. While I was still craning around, listening for the rattle, Al had sighted the bird perched in dead branches across the pond. Handing me his binoculars, he asked, “Do you see something, blue?” I saw flashes of blue and white, and the shape of a stocky bird, with a big head.” Okay, it was still slightly blurry, and I had to close one eye to make it out, but I saw it! The moment was recorded for posterity when Al filed his count online. I felt a ridiculous burst of pride when I read the mention, “Adriana’s bird of the day is the kingfisher.”
Experienced birders David Johnson, Jeffrey Sanders, and Alan Anderson, as well as Jim Steffen, the Garden’s senior ecologist, also helped me gather information for this report. To follow sightings by Al and other local birders, you can go to several websites, including eBird (ebird.org/ebird/places), which designates the Garden as a hot spot, and IBET (groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/ILbirds/info).
Fall migration is happening right now. Stop what you’re doing, grab a camera or binoculars, and go outside! You never know what you might see. It could be a fall warbler (but what kind?), a beautiful grebe, or a rusty blackbird—it may not even be a bird at all!
Spring and fall are times of great opportunity and diversity. With hundreds of species moving through, you get a chance to see and photograph some that would be impossible to find at any other time. Since they may be here only a few days before moving on, I like to get out any chance I get.
Migration is not just for birds. Most know the mighty migration of the monarch butterfly, but did you know that some dragonflies migrate, too? You can often find large numbers of dragonflies hunting other insects almost anywhere in the Chicago Botanic Garden. The most common ones to find migrating are the darners (Anax sp.) and saddlebags (Tramea sp.).
When you spot a warbler, take a close look and listen closely to its song—birds within the species are notoriously difficult to identify. Also, keep your eyes open for warblers, kinglets, blackbirds, hawks, ducks, shorebirds, sandhill cranes, and more. There will be a steady stream of birds migrating through this area through November. Any place in the Garden can have birds. Listen for the sounds, watch for movement in the trees, and you may be lucky to see one of these beauties. Check the logbook at the Information Desk in the Visitor Center to see what other birders have seen and add your finds as well.
There was a nice assortment of birds at the Garden this morning!
White-crowned sparrows were the most abundant, and could be seen in almost every location. I saw a few warblers scattered about, but none in any large numbers. My best spot for finding birds was along the water in the woodland walk area of the Sensory Garden. I saw black-and-white warblers, Nashville warblers, ruby-crowned kinglets, gray catbirds, warbling vireos, palm warblers, flycatchers, and an ovenbird.
Southerly winds are expected for the next two days, which should bring in a LOT more birds. Now is the time to get out your binoculars and cameras and see some of these amazing birds for yourself! In a few short weeks they will be gone.
After such a long, cold winter, I am especially looking forward to the gifts that migration brings.
Each day is a present just waiting to be opened. Here in Illinois, we can see more than 400 different bird species. Some are local residents, but most are just passing through. Starting in March and lasting through June, millions of birds will be heading north through Illinois to their breeding grounds.
First to move through are the ducks, then blackbirds, kinglets, shorebirds, herons, egrets, and finally the big show, warblers! If you don’t know what warblers are, I suggest you look them up; after you see your first one in the wild, you will be hooked. These tiny gems are a wonder to behold. I saw my first warbler of the year yesterday, a yellow-rumped warbler (one of the most common of the species). I’ve seen them hundreds of times, yet I was just as thrilled yesterday as I was the first time I saw one. I guess I’m hooked.
The Chicago Botanic Garden is a hot spot for migrant activity. With the advantage of water, woods, and prairie, it is an attractive spot for a large variety of birds. I’ve seen more than 200 species of birds at the Garden, and just this past week I was treated to migrating red-breasted mergansers, coots, and grebes. Plus, it was fun to see the resident birds returning from their winter in warmer climates, like grackles, red-winged blackbirds, and great blue herons. The goldfinches were also getting their breeding colors back after dulling down for the winter. Spring may be slow to get going this year, but the garden is full of colorful birds!
A fun way to spend the day is to grab a field guide, a pair of binoculars, or a camera, and see how many different species you can find and identify. There is even a ledger at the front desk to record your finds. If you need help, you can sign up for a bird walk and learn from an expert.
Migration is one of the greatest miracles on Earth, and is here for all of us to enjoy.