Birding in Beauty
Few places in Chicagoland offer such beautiful surroundings as the Chicago Botanic Garden. Among a plethora of native and exotic plantings lies a haven for some 255 bird species, enabling birders to enjoy over 9,000 plant varieties in both manicured and unmanicured settings while simultaneously listening for the song of a Blackburnian Warbler or the distinctive zippery shreeee of a Pine Siskin.
Birds to Look For
The best times to bird the Garden are during migration and winter. In spring and fall, passerine migration can be quite good in many areas of the park, including the Waterfall Garden, Spider Island and McDonald Woods on the southeast edge. Warblers also tend to hang out in Parking Lots 1 and 2, particularly in the early morning.
In irruptive years, this can be a great place to look for winter finches. In the winter of 2007-08, large flocks of Common Redpoll and Pine Siskin congregated in the facility’s Enabling Garden and nearby trees feeding on catkins, including one Hoary Redpoll that delighted birders for weeks. The following year, White-winged Crossbills were the major attraction, often feeding on cones in the main parking lot in plain sight.
The areas of open water can hold many species of duck during migration and some wading species. One spring, a Reddish Egret spent some time on the banks of one of the ponds. Also, the ponds can hold many gulls and some terns, including Caspian Terns in summer.
Take time to walk through any of the display gardens that host native plant species or conifers. These areas can hold many birds in any season. Especially, check out the prairie habitat on the northern side of the Garden. It can host a variety of sparrow species in winter and migration.
Birding the Chicago Botanic Garden
Start early in the morning. (Get to the Chicago Botanic Garden by 7, and you should be able to avoid the $20 parking fee for non-members.) The Garden can become crowded fast during spring and summer. Start birding in Parking Lot 1 and check the trees. Then pick up a map at the Visitors Center and head northwest over the bridge towards the Sensory Garden and Enabling Garden. This area has hosted wintering finches in past years, including a Hoary Redpoll during an invasion in 2007. Thistle feeders hanging in the Enabling Garden are a great place to stake out any finches.
The Sensory Garden and adjacent Spider Island are naturally landscaped and can hold many migrating passerines. As always, keep your eye out on any body of water for migrating waterfowl. There are many areas in the gardens as a whole that offer great looks at open water.
Another spot to bird is Evening Island, clearly identified by the carillon that sits at the highest point. This island – reachable by one of two bridges, including one near the Enabling Garden – is a great place to look for warblers and other migrants.
After exploring the island, make your way northeast toward the Garden’s natural prairie habitat to look for breeding sparrows and other grassland species as well as migrants (depending on season). Several ponds dotting the prairie and the river that forms the western border of the Garden (reachable from the prairie) can also yield herons, shorebirds and rarities like the Reddish Egret that turned up in 2008.
Waterfall & Dwarf Conifer Gardens
Heading back to the main island, stop at the Waterfall Garden and Dwarf Conifer Garden. In a good winter these two gardens can produce species such as Red and White-winged Crossbills, Common Redpoll and Pine Siskin. Some of the denser trees could also harbor a wintering Saw-whet Owl.
Finally, don’t miss McDonald Woods – a little outside of the Garden to the southeast of Parking Lot 2 and also reachable by several trails including the bike path coming back from the prairie. Warblers and other songbirds can be found here during migration, including hands-reach views of a Golden-Winged Warbler by the bridge near the exit road and a reported nine Blackburnians in the woods on either side of the exit road a few days apart in 2009. The path between the woods and the prairie can also be productive with everything from warblers to Fox Sparrows, Orchard Orioles and Purple Martins. During spring migration, in fact, you might want to start at Parking Lot 2, bird the woods and then walk the bike path.
Getting to the Chicago Botanic Garden
The Chicago Botanic Garden is located on Lake Cook Rd and is most accessible from Rt. 41 from both north and south. Take the Lake Cook Rd. exit and head east. The entrance to the Garden will be on your right.