By Jay Risk
It’s hard to imagine a major urban center like Chicago being the unlikely site of one of the truly amazing phenomenon of nature, but it is. Each spring and fall, and especially during the middle of May, Chicago is host to the annual migration of millions of birds in a concentration found only in a handful of places around the world. Some, like the arctic tern, travel over 22,000 miles from the tip of South America to northern Alaska to their breeding grounds. Among the most colorful and active are the warblers that travel from Central and South America to the boreal forests of Canada to breed. They follow along the Mississippi flyway and begin to disperse along major routes towards Eastern and Western Canada. But, on their way north, they are found in greatest concentration, for a brief few weeks each year, in a few places in Chicago, and one of those magic places is the eastern edge of Montrose Harbor. In fact, the area has been given a name, The Magic Hedge, and was designated as a migratory bird sanctuary by the city of Chicago in 2001.
Birders from all over the country visit the Magic Hedge to see such marvels as the Blackburnian Warbler, the arctic tern, peregrine falcons and over 300 other avian species every year. All you need to see this wonderful display of nature is a pair of binoculars and a willingness to ask for help in identifying the Magnolia Warbler from the Yellow Throated Warbler (and, yes, both have a yellow throat!). Birders are a friendly lot, and they are quick to share their knowledge of the over 600 species of birds found in North America. The Magic Hedge is aptly named, because for years volunteers have been planting and tending the former Nike missile site with habitat the migrating birds need for resting and food gathering on their way north. The ‘magic’ is the care and commitment of the volunteers. The ‘hedge’ is a row of trees and woody plants along the western edge of Montrose Harbor, but the entire 15 acres along the Lakefront has been planted by volunteers in cooperation with city officials. There is a meadow of grasses and sedges with a water ‘drip’ where rare sparrows like the Le Conte’s Sparrow has been seen. There is a break of trees to the east which separates the meadow from the sand dunes and beach area where resting song birds can be found. The dunes and beach areas offer great sightings of species such as plovers, Dunlin and Sandpipers. Spring isn’t the only time to visit the Magic Hedge. One fall day I happened to see a Northern Harrier dive into the short grasses and emerge with its next meal, a hapless mouse caught in nature’s cycle of life and death. On a blustery day in late winter I joined a happy group of birders to see a Hudsonian Godwit with its upturned beak in one of the tidal pools along the beach. And on a really cold winter day, during an ‘eruption’ year when seed production in the boreal forests of northern Canada had crashed and lemming populations were low, a Snowy Owl was perched on a lamp post along the beach path. My children are grown now, but it would have been fun to show them the ‘Harry Potter’ bird and tell them about its’ remarkable adaptations as a hunter. Owls have unique scapular feathers along the wing edges that make no sound in the breeze; their ears are offset, so the owl can detect sound an inch under the snow from 3 inches under the snow; and they can swivel their heads 270 degrees. There it was, on a Chicago lamp post, gazing off into the distance looking for something to take the place of the missing lemmings.
The Magic Hedge is only a part of larger story of nature, people and progress in Chicago. Mies Van De Rohe and Louis Sullivan are household names for their innovative architectural achievements in the Windy City, but there are pioneers in the movement to restore natural ecosystems in Chicago as well, and the volunteers at Montrose Harbor are part of that important narrative. Metro Chicago is home to over 200,000 acres of forest preserves, prairies and wetlands. In 1995 William K. Stevens published Miracle Under the Oaks: The Revival of Nature in America. It’s the story of restoration ecology, and much of the book is about work being done here in the Chicago metro region. In Northbrook there is a placed called the Vestal Grove. Home to extremely rare plants like the White Fringed Prairie Orchid, it is the site of volunteer stewardship that has restored an Oak Savannah and preserved the prairie orchid. Just south of Chicago the 20,000 acre Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is reintroducing Bison on the former Joliet army arsenal. And at the Magic Hedge of Montrose Harbor volunteers are helping endangered bird species survive by providing a stop over in their epic migrations every year. Come visit the Magic Hedge. Stay on the paths and talk in a whisper. Enjoy one of nature’s annual miracles. And remember the volunteers who make it possible. Part of the revival of nature in America.