Antonio Flores, left, and fellow bird watchers spot waterfowl at the McKinley Park lagoon on the May 4, 2019, Bird Walk.

Birders Flock to McKinley Park

Published June 6, 2019

Chicago's McKinley Park has become an oasis for bird watching with the area rolling through the height of the migration season and local groups playing host to bird walks and education events. The area is a "hot spot" for birding, said Chicago Audubon Society President Judy Pollock, since the park and its natural areas attract both common and very rare species.

"Some of these birds will stay for the breeding season," she said. "These are the birds we will be looking for on our farmers market walks."

The walks are part of a birding event series taking place at McKinley Park following the Chicago Audubon Society's site consultations with the Chicago Park District and Openlands. Birding classes in McKinley Park are sponsored by the Chicago Park District and The Nature Conservancy. The next Bird Walk is scheduled for this Sunday, June 9.

Pollock credits the event series with inspiring interest in bird watching and attracting newcomers to the activity. She cited local resident Antonio Flores, who has jumped in with a passion, identifying and recording 14 bird species never before seen in McKinley Park.

"My family all likes birding," Flores said. "We were always interested in birds, but didn't really know it was a thing."

Flores got started this spring with the Merlin bird identification app, and then he was off and running, Pollock said. The McKinley Park page on ebird.org, a free bird tracking and recording website, lists over 100 species that have been observed, most of which include accompanying photos of the birds observed in the park, including Flores' contributions.

Flores' bird watching has included some very rare finds, including the northern mockingbird he spotted this spring. He's also noted exceptional nearby sightings, such as the grey-cheeked thrush just south of McKinley Park.

"This class has given my family great happiness that can last our entire life," Flores said.

Bird Watching class McKinley Park Spring 2019Bird watchers learn species identification techniques from Doug Stotz of the Field Museum at one of the spring 2019 birding classes in McKinley Park. Pollock pointed to a May 4 birding event in McKinley Park that attracted 20 people who observed 40 species. These became part of the ebird.org shared data that "lets us know what birds — and what birders — are in which places," she said.

Notable sightings on May 4 included two pine warblers and 15 ruby-crowned kinglets, Pollock said. "At McKinley Park, the plantings around the lagoon are great for warblers, native sparrows and other migratory birds."

"The lagoon and its islands host herons, terns, waterfowl and swallows," she said, adding that the park's trees and lawns hold other species, too. The rarest bird ever sighted in the park was a prairie warbler reported by Jose Aveja in May 2013, she said.

Pollock said that climate change can affect McKinley Park's bird population. The switch in climate can do things like create a "mismatch" between early emergence of the insect populations that feeds them, she said. 

Two ways to help local birds are to keep cats indoors and mitigate problems with windows that attract bird strikes, Pollock said. This helps "the many rare birds that pass through Chicago which use yards as well as parks," she said.

New bird watcher Maggie Gentilcore said she's enjoyed the classes "tremendously. Now I experience the world differently: I'm hearing songs that I just ignored before, and seeing birds that I would have walked right past."

Pollock noted that the bird walk series in McKinley Park takes place the second Sunday of the month through this summer, including June 9, July 14, August 11 and September 8. "We're hoping to see brown thrashers, eastern kingbirds, yellow warblers, green herons and many more," she said.

She invited anyone interested to join the Chicago Audubon Society by connecting at one of their free programs across the metro region, sharing bird photos to their Facebook group and communicating through their website.


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