Photo: Tom Lally holding a young American Kestrel on a banding project in Wisconsin.
By Bob Dolgan
This is the second in a series featuring the birders of the Chicago region and their favorite local patches.
One of Chicago’s most distinctive natural habitats isn’t very distinctive at all. Flatwoods flourish in the plains left by retreating glaciers millennia ago. They don’t quite feel like upland or bottomland forests. The trees are not necessarily all coniferous or deciduous or even all native. They are just as their name suggests. Flat. Woods.
“As flat as a pool table,” says Tom Lally of the woodlands.
Bunker Hill Forest Preserve, a Cook County property on the Far Northwest Side of Chicago has plenty of flatwoods. But step off the paved North Branch Trail which runs through the site, and a new world opens up. There are prairies, sloughs and a scenic stretch of the Chicago River, which loops its way south toward downtown.
Tom deliberately began birding Bunker Hill in 2013 after discovering that only a handful of lists had ever been submitted on eBird. That’s hard to believe given the preserve’s proximity to the Northwest Side, expressways and well-populated suburbs. Now Tom has tallied 180 of the 188 species seen at the site. Some of the specialties include Summer Tanager, LeConte’s Sparrow and Dickcissel. The parking lot just off the Harts Road entrance is a reliable spot each May for Olive-sided Flycatchers. Small patches of vegetation harbor an array of birds.
“That’s a Song Sparrow doing its best Winter Wren,” said Tom as we stood near an oxbow of the river. “It kind of moused over the log.”
Tom, a lifelong Northwest Sider, has been birding “as long as I can remember,” going back to his days in the Boy Scouts. He stops by Bunker Hill on his way home from his job as an inspector for the City of Chicago’s Department of Water Management.
Maybe Bunker Hill is a place that’s been bypassed as city birders head out to the suburbs and suburban birders head into well-known city hotspots. The preserve is near the southern end of a mini-flyway that stretches from LaBagh Woods (near Foster Avenue), up the Chicago River north to areas like Skokie Lagoons. At 340 acres, Bunker Hill is three times the size of LaBagh, its more well-known neighbor.
A fading sun illuminated the flatwoods on a day in April. The trees were still bare, and the nearby prairie grasses were a pale yellow-brown. A chorus of early spring migrants added to the tableau.
Said Tom as he took in the sight, “We really are lucky with the amount of forest preserve we have.”
Update: By mid-May this year, Bunker Hill had seen at least 27 warbler species, including Golden-winged, Hooded and Prothonotary. “It’s doing pretty well,” said Tom. “I had six Scarlet Tanagers all hanging together the other day. Looked like a Christmas tree in the gloomy dark woods.”