By Georgie Lellman
On March 26, as the pandemic was beginning to have serious and far-reaching impacts within the United States, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot closed the Lake Michigan lakefront for all recreational activities. The closure meant that Montrose Point, a spot that attracts crowds of birdwatchers--and birds--would have nearly zero observations in April and May, a far cry from the 237 bird species observed in 2019.
“It’s a perfect place for migrants flying over or along the lake to land, rest, and fuel up for their next flight,” said birdwatcher Isoo O’Brien.
Montrose attracts birdwatchers because of its convenient location, diversity of habitats, and eye-level bird sightings. However, because of the closure, eBird data show how birders went elsewhere. Graceland Cemetery, a shaded cemetery and arboretum just blocks from Montrose, experienced one of the biggest increases in observations, even as it has slowly been gaining in popularity among birders in recent years. Graceland recorded more bird species in 2020 spring migration (153 to be exact) than had been recorded in the last 10 years combined. Additionally, Graceland saw 30 distinct warbler species this past spring, while recording only 28 species during spring migration over the last decade. Weekly maximum sightings during spring migration for several migratory species included: 35 Hermit Thrushes, 20 Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and 20 Baltimore Orioles, compared to previous records of 17, 15 and nine observations of these species, respectively.
“Graceland was the alternative destination for people seeking the convenience of a nearby migrant trap,” explains O’Brien, a high school senior who is trying to break Cook County’s big year record by observing 281 distinct species.
O’Brien spent time birdwatching at Northwestern University, Jackson Park and southern Cook County. But another site, Washington Park on the South Side, also experienced dramatic increases in the number of bird species observed, reaching 193 this season, an increase of over 65 species from its previous maximum of 125 species during spring migration in 2017. The number of warbler species observed at Washington Park also grew, with 35 species recorded this season compared to 30 warbler species recorded over the last decade.
As bird observations of spring migration were heavily impacted in the Chicago area by the Covid-19 pandemic, it will be interesting to see if Graceland Cemetery and Washington Park continue to be popular birdwatching destinations through fall migration, with Montrose Point partially open for recreational activity. Montrose Point and its wildlife had a quiet and relaxed spring migration. Birdwatchers did not relent, but turned their attention elsewhere, discovering new sites, like Graceland, and bolstering the eBird data available for these less popular destinations. Even with discoveries of new birding sites, O’Brien, who prefers Montrose Point, expects typical patterns to return in the future.
“I imagine next spring [Graceland Cemetery] won't be as popular as it was this year,” he says.
Georgie Lellman is a recent graduate of Kenyon College and an intern for Turnstone Strategies. She is interested in environmental law and passionate about wildlife issues. Contact Georgie at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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