Shoot with the birds at Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary

 In Chicago, Photography Tips

As warmer weather comes back to Chicago, so do the migrating birds to mix and mingle with our local resident avian population.  Naturalists, birders and photographers don’t have to leave Chicago to experience one of the most diverse environments for bird watching…Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary.  This is a relatively small area between Montrose Harbor and Montrose Beach on the north side of the city.

This piece of land sticks out into Lake Michigan providing a very convenient resting point for migrating birds.  In addition, in this very small area there are four different habitats for the birds: forest, prairie, wetland and shoreline.  You could literally cover all habitats from end to end in a five minute walk.  As a photographer, you can chose either stake out a location, follow a specific bird or follow the group of other naturalists and photographers as they move in a similar flocking pattern spotting the next bird.

The best time to visit is early in the morning (I like to go pre-dawn).  This has three major advantages:

  1. Before shooting the birds, you can take stunning pictures of the Chicago skyline across the lake as the sun lights up the buildings (also good for time lapse movies)
  2. Sun shining from the east over the water provides the nice golden color on the foliage, water and the birds themselves
  3. Easiest way to get a great parking spot
Red Knot in morning light on the Lake Michigan shore.

Red Knot in morning light on the Lake Michigan shore.

I am a photographer who enjoys nature and capturing wildlife images.  I don’t know all of the birds or how to know if they are rare or not for the Chicago area.  Luckily, there are plenty of people on hand that know these things and are happy to share their knowledge.  On my last visit, a family of Red Knots was spotted on the beach.  These are very common birds on the coast, but very rare in Chicago.  Luckily the Red Knots helped me out by posing nicely in the sun in shallow pools on the beach.

Red-winged Blackbird in the Prairie at Montrose Point.

Red-winged Blackbird in the Prairie at Montrose Point.

I would suggest starting on the shore as that is where the sun first provides light and you can find plovers, sandpipers and other wading birds.  From there, as you walk towards the forest you pass through a small area of prairie grass.  You can find typical grassland birds here like redwing blackbirds.  As you continue through the prairie and into the forest you reach one of the most exciting locations for birding and bird photography around Chicago…the famous “Magic Hedge.”

My understanding of the term “Magic Hedge” dates back decades to when people first took notice of this location.  The city had an old fence line where the hedge was not maintained and became quite overgrown.  Given the location of this piece of land on the migratory path it was said that the hedge attracted song birds like magic.  I can say it was indeed alive with all sorts of activity.  You would hear a call or a rustle in the leaves and look to see who could spot and identify the bird first.  Then someone else would point into a tree because they spotted a different type of bird.

Baltimore Oriole observing the photographers at the Magic Hedge.

Baltimore Oriole observing the photographers at the Magic Hedge.

You could spend hours just watching the birds in the Magic Hedge area.  If you need a change of scenery, you can also wander into the natural forming small dunes between the prairie and the lake and from there walk out on to the hooked pier.  This pier goes out into the lake and curves back on itself (like a hook).  From the pier you can see ducks, loons, gulls and other similar birds.  The naturalist claim peregrine falcons also come by…so you need to keep careful watch of the skies as well.

Kildeer enjoying the morning at Montrose Point.

Kildeer enjoying the morning at Montrose Point.

I should add a word of caution to protect these birds.  The migrating birds can be a little on edge from the stress of their long migrations.  Montrose Point is a significant rest spot for them.  As such, they relax, feed on bugs, etc. in the hedge and generally feel protected.  There are plenty of trails through the forest and prairie areas, so please stay on the trails.  We don’t need to add further stress to these birds.

Getting to the Magic Hedge is easy.  Just exit Lake Shore Drive on to Montrose Avenue and head east. Take a right on Montrose Harbor Drive.  Shortly, the road will start to make a strong curve to the right.  This is where you should stop and park.  As you walk east towards the lake you should see signs about the Magic Hedge.  If you are going to start the day with some pre-dawn pictures of the city, before going into the hedge area, you can walk along harbor drive until you find a place you like and shoot from the cement pier.

Have fun and happy shooting!

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