When Chicago’s former mayor Richard M. Daley sent crews to bulldoze large Xs across the runways of Meigs Field in the middle of the night in March 2003, aviators might not have been thrilled, but I and other birders sure were. Mayor Daley wanted this prime piece of lakefront open space in the heart of bustling Chicago to become a park, and so it was.
The area was rechristened Northerly Island (despite actually being a peninsula) and converted into a 91-acre park. Its tall grass and smattering of trees are magnets to migrating birds that follow the Lake Michigan shore. The abundance of tall grass here is nearly unique along the Chicago shoreline, providing migratory habitat for sought-after sparrows like Henslow’s, Nelson’s, and Le Conte’s. I’ve also scared up woodcock, American Bittern, and Short-eared Owl from the same grasses.
The few trees and bushes, especially those along the lakeshore, provide just enough cover to attract migrating warblers, flycatchers, and thrushes. Also, watch overhead for passing raptors, Lapland Longspurs, and Snow Buntings. You never know what might drop in. — Josh Engel
Josh Engel is a researcher at the Field Museum and a tour leader for Tropical Birding. Despite regular birding trips abroad, he is inordinately fond of birding his home patches in Chicago.
Flat. Paved walking paths are wheelchair-accessible.
More than 220 species. Lakeshore and harbor: Horned Grebe, Common Loon, a wide variety of ducks and gulls. Landbirds: Le Conte’s, Nelson’s, Henslow’s, Grasshopper, and Harris’s Sparrows, Mourning, Connecticut, Magnolia, Black-throated Blue, Nashville, and Golden-winged Warblers, Sora, Dickcissel, Eastern Meadowlark, Short-eared and Snowy Owls, Orchard and Baltimore Orioles, Bobolink. Recent rarities: Sage Thrasher, Brewer’s Sparrow, and California Gull.
When to go
Best from March to May and September to November. Winter can also be good.
Restrooms in the old terminal building. Food is available on the museum campus. The world-class Field Museum, Adler Planetarium, and Shedd Aquarium are well worth a visit. Local bird clubs have occasional trips to Northerly Island.
City park. Free and open 6 a.m.-11 p.m., every day. Parking: $0.25 per hour before 9 a.m. and $1 per hour after. To reach the park by mass transit, take the red, orange, or green line subway trains to Roosevelt station at State St. and Roosevelt Rd. Transfer to the No. 146 bus (or the No. 130 bus from mid-May through Labor Day) and get off at the Museum Campus stop.
The best birding is off the walking paths. Be prepared to walk through knee-high grass, which may be wet. Be patient as you try to get good views of birds in the grass.