Woods, Dunes & Shoreline Birding
The South Unit of Illinois Beach State Park has some of the most diverse habitat found in Lake County. Where else can you find marsh, dune, swale, oak woods, beach and Lake Michigan in one location? Because of this diversity, the park boasts a range of migrating and breeding birds that can be hard to find elsewhere in Lake County or northeastern Illinois.
It is also a place where many rarities have been seen, along with the occasional spectacle – like the more than 200 breeding-plumaged Horned Grebes that carpeted the Lake Michigan shoreline on April 28, 2007.
Birds to Look For
The IBSP South Unit has a nature center with trails that take you through all the park’s diverse habitats. Some unique breeders that are found in the dune/swale habitat near the beach include Grasshopper Sparrow and Brewer’s Blackbirds. In the oak woodlands, listen for the varied song of the Yellow-breasted Chat which can be a breeder in some years. Also watch the skies for raptors, including kettles of Broad-winged Hawks during the right season.
In migration, the black oak woods can be quite active, especially when a northern wind drives migrating songbirds down to rest. Passerines to look for in both spring and fall migration include almost all of the warblers seen in Lake County including Blackburnian, Bay-breasted and Connecticut.
On warm summer nights, watch for Common Nighthawks at dusk and listen for Whip-poor-wills belting out their melancholy song along the road next to the nature center. (Be sure that you aren’t in the parking area and entrance road to the nature center. The gate closes at 8PM.) Along the beach during the right season, large numbers of gulls can be seen including some rarities. The South Unit is also a good place for shorebird migration, with many species including Red Knot.
In the winter, any area with open land and scattered trees could be a great place for Northern Shrike. Also in winter, check the lake for rafts of ducks and even a possible Snow Bunting or Snowy Owl in the dunes.
Birding Illinois Beach State Park South
Start at the parking lot next to the nature center, marked with a sign on the main road. Here you have several trail options.
To go through prime dune and beach habitat, take the dune trail. This trail can be great any time of the year. In the spring and summer, listen for Grasshopper and Field Sparrows in the dune grasses running parallel to the lake. In the winter, the dunes can also hold a Northern Shrike. Look for them on conspicuous perches. Farther south toward the mouth of the Dead River is a good place to look for breeding Brewer’s Blackbirds, which are uncommon nesters in Lake County.
If you decide to take the trail along the Dead River to the west, you will hike through more open, marsh habitat on the western side of the trail and black oak forest to the eastern side. This is a great place to look for migrating warblers and flycatchers in either spring or fall. Look for breeding Willow Flycatcher as well. Depending on water level, the Dead River can be a great place to see migrating shorebirds, including Solitary Sandpiper, along with close-up Sandhill Cranes.
Don’t forget to take time to bird the beach itself. In winter, check for large rafts of scaup as well as other waterfowl species such as Black Scoter and Long-tailed Duck. Walking the beach north to the mouth of the Dead River can yield views of migrating shorebirds including the possibility of seeing a Piping Plover. Also, this can be an area to look for less common gulls.
If you are birding the South Unit in the spring and summer, go back onto the main road heading east to get to the Illinois Beach State Park Resort. In the front of the resort are some pine trees that have held breeding Yellow-throated Warblers for the past three years. This is a rare find in Northern Illinois. The pond behind the resort has also yielded an occasional American Bittern, fishing so close that you don’t even need binoculars.
Getting to Illinois Beach State Park South
The South Unit of Illinois Beach State Park is located just east of the intersection of Sheridan Rd. and Wadsworth Rd. in Zion. Just follow Wadsworth road east past Sheridan Rd. to enter the park.