The Song of Northerly Island

3,257 total words    

13 minutes of reading

Photo Credit: Meadowlark. By Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren.

It was a meadowlark that introduced me to Northerly Island. I was pedaling south on the Lakefront Trail, passing the Burnham Boathouse on a borrowed bike in early June 2007, when I was arrested by a clear, varied melody—the unmistakable notes of an eastern meadowlark. I knew the song well; meadowlarks had nested for years in the meadows next to our longtime home in Barrington. But here in Chicago? How could a bird of rural grasslands be singing in the city?

I stopped, turned around, and headed toward the song.

The only route toward the meadowlark led past the Field Museum and the Shedd Aquarium and finally to a road that turned off just short of the Adler Planetarium. A signpost read: “Northerly Island.” Pedaling on southward, I was surprised to find myself on a path that wound through an open field and grassland complex. I began to recognize prairie plants. The meadowlark sang again, and I spotted it on the ground. Before long, I also had found a grasshopper sparrow, savannah sparrows, and a kestrel—all birds of open grasslands.

At the southern end of the peninsula, I stopped, turned around, straddled the bike, and gazed. The view of the city was a jaw-dropper. With the lake at my back and spring prairie vegetation ahead, merging into that incomparable skyline, natural history and human history were fused into one grand sweep: lake, prairie, Chicago. And here, in panoramic proximity to Soldier Field, the museum campus, and the city beyond, a meadowlark was singing.

It still was not clear to me, other than the obvious near-the-museums geography, where I was. What was Northerly Island? Even though Barrington had been our home since the early 1970s, Chicago was not so familiar to me, especially since we’d been away—in New York City and Washington, DC—for over fourteen years. But surely I should have known of this place.

I headed north again, lost in thought, toward the apartment of our daughter and her husband in Lakeview, where they awaited the imminent birth of their first child. Gradually, it occurred to me: wasn’t the site where the meadowlark sang the former Meigs Field? I had never been there but had heard about the small lakeside airport that Mayor Daley had ordered demolished under cover of dark. I knew also of the mayor’s championing of nature and parks. Hallelujah! Not only had he traded tarmac for open space, but he also had initiated a prai­rie restoration project on the site. And prairie birds, among the most precipitously declining species in the world—meadowlark populations, for example, had plummeted by as much as 87 percent since 1967—were responding.

Once back at my computer in the apartment, I shot off a brief message to Maggie Daley, the mayor’s wife, whom I had come to know on her visits to New York and Washington during our eastern sojourn. “I discovered Northerly Island today. The song of an eastern meadowlark drew me there. Please thank the Mayor. He has done a wonderful thing for nature in the city—and for city dwellers’ quality of life.” In the months following, I spoke several times with Maggie about the potential of Northerly Island as an outdoor classroom and laboratory for Chicago students and citizens.

On subsequent visits to the city, the site invariably was on the itinerary, even during troubling times. I led my husband on a bike trek to Northerly at the brink of the 2007–8 financial crisis. He was preoccupied with the economy, but even on our short field trip, he found the encounter with prairie and prairie birds in the heart of the city captivating.

A cluster of friends from New York, members of a conservation book group we had started there ten years earlier, visited the next summer. We spent a day in the city before retreating to Barrington for prairie restoration work and book discussion. Our destination: Northerly Island. My friends gasped in wonder at the encounter with lake, prairie, and cityscape—not to mention the grassland birds. The meadowlark was missing, but we found grasshopper and savannah sparrows along with a kestrel.

It was entirely natural, then, when we came back to Illinois in 2010 and bought an apartment in the city near Millennium Park, that I get to know Northerly Island better. It was winter when I was finally able to visit the site. Someone had told me about possible short-­eared owls and a northern shrike there. With our three-year-old granddaughter in tow, my husband and I headed to Northerly on a frigid, blustery Saturday morning. We leaned into the fierce wind and made our way southward. I spotted the shrike in a leafless sapling. Minutes later, crows mobbed a short-eared owl into flight. Once again I was plunged into utter astonishment and delight: how could anyone expect to find a northern shrike, the “butcher bird” of open fields (so named for its habit of killing and impaling prey on thorns), and a short-eared owl, a winter visitor to vast Midwest grasslands, in shouting distance of Soldier Field in Chicago?

I knew then that I wanted to start bird walks at Northerly Island.

Years before, the idea of leading bird walks in a city would have seemed to me preposterous. But what struck me before as improbable, if not impossible, no longer did. That was because of an eleven-year sojourn in the heart of New York City. From nearly daily outings to Central Park and bimonthly trips to Jamaica Bay, I had learned that birding in the city could yield as many encounters with birds, especially during migration, as outings in the country. In fact, the experiences often were more intense and diverse in the city settings, precisely because the concentration of birds was greater in these urban oases.

What’s more, the city parks offered the best outdoor classrooms I ever experienced. I led walks for the Nature Conservancy in Central Park for eleven years. While there were occasional slow days, as on any bird outing, never once did we leave without sighting something notable. It could be blackpoll and bay-breasted warblers on the same branch that gave us textbook comparisons of their confusing fall plumage. Or an airborne peregrine spotted through a gap in the tree canopy. Or a black-billed cuckoo that streaked out of a woodland. One morning, as our group stood atop a huge glacial boulder dubbed Sunbathers’ Rock, we even watched a meadowlark fly overhead—the only time I saw that species in Central Park.

The unpredictable and serendipitous became almost commonplace.

For young students, the park was a vibrant aviary. With Audubon New York, I taught bird classes in urban schools for eight years. Each spring we took field trips to the park to test observation and listening skills developed in the students’ classrooms and neighborhoods. With eyes newly alert to species other than the ubiquitous pigeons, sparrows, and starlings of city blocks, they marveled as iridescent grackles, just several feet away, tossed leaves in search of grubs. They stood motionless to watch ovenbirds tiptoe on the path before them and black-throated blue warblers perch on wire fences. Over lunch at the Model Boat Basin, they peered at Pale Male, the red-tailed hawk sire, and his mate in their large nest above a fancy window on Fifth Avenue. A teacher of birds could not design a better place for kids to learn about them.

Now back in Chicago, I did not know the parks well enough to know if they could—or did—offer the same opportunity for nature-rich encounters. I had heard and read about migration spectacles at the Magic Hedge at Montrose Harbor, and the good birding at Jackson Park and Washington Park, but had not yet been to any of those places. While I regarded Millennium Park as a fine urban achievement, it accentuated built structures, not natural ones, and it could hardly be considered the oasis for birds that Central Park is.

But the meadowlark’s song at Northerly Island gave hope and promise that there was more to be discovered. That first winter I made several solo treks to the peninsula, one memorably on the day that the Green Bay Packers played the Bears at Soldier Field. I reveled in the solitude and stillness of the winter lakeside landscape, interrupted regularly by bursts of cheers from the stadium. I reveled also in the rafts of waterfowl gathered in Burnham Harbor and on the lake: mergansers, goldeneye, green-winged teal, canvasbacks, redheads. This place was special.

Under the sponsorship of Audubon Chicago Region, the Field Museum, and Openlands, I began to lead bird walks at Northerly Island in the spring of 2011. Sometimes we compile respectable lists of species sighted; other times we do not. But almost always we have experienced displays and encounters that leave us exhilarated and inspired for the day ahead.

In the glare of McCormick Place one spring morning, we discovered the nest of an eastern kingbird in a spindly oak on the west side of the island, and we could see the head of the incubating female just above the rim. The kingbird, Tyrannus tyrannus, had flown all the way from Colombia or Ecuador to build its nest and raise young in that oak. We marveled at this long-distance migrant that had chosen Northerly Island as its nursery. A year later, a kingbird (the same one?) nested on the other side of the trunk in the same oak sapling. With only instinct and inner compass, it had navigated a 6,000-mile round trip with neither map, motor, nor GPS.

Barn swallows demonstrated their mud-gathering techniques at the edge of mud puddles along the paths. One day someone noted it was not just barn swallows but cliff swallows, too, and we found their gourd-shaped nests of mud nestled in the electric light recesses in the outdoor canopy of the old airport terminal. Here were two master avian potters absorbed in their life’s work as traffic choked Lake Shore Drive not a half mile away.

In late fall, horned grebes delighted viewers with extended close-range studies as we stood on the concrete platform at the southern end of Northerly. Lesser scaup, bufflehead, and common goldeneye swam and dove in the protected waters of Burnham Harbor. Offshore, we caught glimpses of red-breasted mergansers and green-winged teals. An occasional Cooper’s hawk, in focused pursuit of a songbird or turning on a badgering crow, electrified the group. Kestrels were more regular visitors but no less appreciated by admiring viewers. One early spring day, a red-headed woodpecker surprised us. We had been counting brown thrashers, clearly in migration, when the woodpecker flew into a tree along the lakeshore. It is a species seldom seen even in rural habitats these days, and it thrilled us with its sudden appearance.

The company of wild, feathered creatures against an inanimate cityscape of concrete and steel and honking taxis was utterly magical. But there was more.

The winter of 2011–12 was remarkable for its warmth. It was also remarkable for the influx of snowy owls from the Arctic. Apparently the owls had experienced a bumper breeding season, and the overflow—mostly juveniles and females—headed farther south than usual for winter food. Ornithologists term such a phenomenon an “irruption.”

Having spent many fruitless hours and days in search of a snowy owl over the years, I was desperate to see one. One morning in December, I received a call from my brother-in-law reporting a snowy owl at Montrose. I looked at my watch, figured I had about fifty-five minutes before a conference call, and sped up Lake Shore Drive to Montrose Harbor. A photographer emerging from his car offered to lead me to the owl, as I had no idea where it might be. In only a few minutes, I was staring at my first snowy owl cowering behind a fence on the breakwater. As other birders and photographers focused on the raptor from the Arctic, I felt a twinge of guilt for being part of a human phalanx backing the owl into a remote corner of the pier.

One month later I took a visiting friend, Gary, who is a fine birder, out to Northerly Island simply to see the place I had told him so much about. We were strolling up the footpath nearest the lake, and I could see that Gary was watching intently even while talking. Abruptly he announced in a reverent whisper, “Snowy owl!” He had been watching gulls climb and dive above the rocks that line the shore, and suddenly he realized what they were aiming at. We positioned ourselves for a better view, peering through the grasses and rocks, and there it was: a magnificent mass of ivory feathers etched with black, standing atop a cement slab, alone against the lake. We watched for a long time, chuckling when we saw the bird hop—literally hop—presumably in pursuit of some rodent in the rock rubble. Gary stood vigil while I phoned my husband. He caught a cab to Northerly and saw his first-ever snowy owl.

In the middle of a workday crammed with phone calls, meetings, and e-mails, an encounter with a snowy owl on a remote edge of lakefront was something of a miracle.

It was not the only snowy at Northerly that winter. I saw several more—or at least had several more sightings, not knowing whether some of them might have been of the same bird. I chose not to report the encounters, preferring to give the magnificent creatures the dignity of solitude and freedom from aggressive birders and photographers.

The best experience with a snowy owl, however, was still ahead. On March 8 our regularly scheduled monthly walk started auspiciously with bluebirds migrating overhead. Soon an eastern meadowlark joined the northward parade, then another and another. Participants who had never even seen meadowlarks were soon identifying them by their silhouette and jerky flight pattern. A Cooper’s hawk flew low over the open field. We swung around the south end and headed north on the east path, making occasional forays to the rock front to look for waterfowl. Mindful of earlier encounters with snowies, I kept scanning ahead.

And, suddenly, there it was. Another snowy owl, different from the darkly streaked one I had seen a couple weeks earlier but standing in almost precisely the same spot. Without revealing the object of focus, I positioned the telescope and directed the others, “Look.” The gasps, as one by one each participant recognized the prize, were audible and sustained. It was as if we all were standing in a magical kingdom. Bluebirds, meadowlarks, and now a snowy owl—all on the same morning in a city by the lake.

It is precisely that dimension—the magical—that characterizes a place like Northerly Island. It offers suspension from the pace, noise, and mechanics of urban living. It opens the window of possibility to encounters with visitors from the Arctic, from the Amazon, who have chosen this place, even if only momentarily, for a segment of their life’s journey. For many city-bound residents, it introduces—and awakens—them to species and migratory dramas they never knew or even dreamed of.

Lest we forget, Northerly Island is not a natural area. It is entirely human-made, part of Daniel Burnham’s plan for a string of islands along the lakeshore for the Chicago World’s Fair. With a land bridge built in 1938 that connected it to what is now Solidarity Drive, the island became a peninsula park and was converted to a small airport in 1947. It remained so, with rocky relations between the city and state about its operation, until 2003; in March of that year, Mayor Daley ordered it to be demolished and returned to parkland.

The genius of his decision is analogous to that of Frederick Law Olmsted when he designed Central Park in the mid-1800s. Olmsted knew that a majority of New Yorkers did not have the means or time to seek refuge from city noise and congestion in northeastern mountains and shores. Fundamental to his design of Central Park was the desire to bring the experience of nature—the beauty, solitude, wonder that can be discovered in the natural world—to city dwellers. Mayor Daley developed a similar vision and sought to make a reality of Chicago’s motto, Urbs in Horto (City in a Garden). The Millennium Park project, the miles of massive architectural planters on the city’s avenues and along the sidewalks, the interpretive signs along the lakefront birding trail, the rooftop gardens, and now the decision to return the former lakeside park to its pre-airport character were bold steps in advancing a vision that would declare the city of Chicago green, aesthetically arresting, and inviting to both nature and people.

A city that includes a tapestry of parks and natural habitats—including native trees along its streets and roadways, and community and school gardens—is a city that honors nature, that recognizes the sense of inquiry and wonder that encounters with birds and butterflies and bats inspire. It promotes wakefulness (Did you see that yellow-bellied sapsucker drilling holes in the locust along Columbus Avenue?); curiosity (Why are there other birds feeding at the holes, too?); gratitude (What a gift to be able to watch sapsuckers and warblers on my walk to work this morning!).

Such a city honors its people, too. It recognizes the pleasure of learning, the delight in unexpected encounters, the pride in the beautiful. Initiating and maintaining parks, boulevards, and natural pockets make experiences in nature available, close, immediate, abundant—not to mention free. If we, as citizens of the planet, are to cherish and care for our natural heritage, we need to know it firsthand. Urban nature sanctuaries give us that opportunity.

As I write, Northerly Island is about to begin yet another chapter in its history. Fences will soon go up to cordon off the southern end for development of a wetland. It will be the first stage of a park plan designed by Jeanne Gang of the Studio Gang Architects. The good news for Chicago and nature lovers is that the Chicago Park District, the designer, and the regional conservation groups are unanimous in their commitment to a park for nature. The not-so-good news is that eastern meadowlarks—and the people who watch for them—may have to look elsewhere for stopovers until the project is completed.

Fortunately, the Park District continues to add parkland all along the lakefront, from Montrose Harbor in the north to Burnham Prairie to the South Shore Nature Sanctuary and Rainbow Beach Dunes. Surely the meadowlarks will find other spots to rest on migration, as will thrushes and owls and warblers headed for Colombia. Soon enough Northerly Island will again welcome nesting, migratory, and wintering birds. Chicagoans of every age will be able to walk there and watch and learn and marvel—and perhaps hear the song of the meadowlark, a song of the prairie in the shadow of the city.



Author’s note: Prior to publication, an unexpected development potentially darkened the bright prospects for Northerly Island. Instead of reducing the footprint of the Charter One Concert Pavilion, as recommended by Studio Gang and approved by the Park District, in March 2013 the District and City abruptly announced plans to dramatically increase the concert area to accommodate a much larger stage and space for 30,000 concert-goers. The decision surprised and dismayed those expecting—and promised—a park for nature. It is unclear at present whether Northerly Island will become a park for loud music and massive crowds, or if it will continue to serve as a nature-based retreat from a noisy metropolis.

Recommended Resources

Carpenter, Lynne, and Joel Greenberg. Birder’s Guide to the Chicago Region. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1999.

Kaufman, Kenn, and John Treadwell Nichols, eds. City Birding: True Tales of Birds and Birdwatching in Unexpected Places. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2003.

Rosen, Jonathan. Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.

Smith, Carl. The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of an American City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Wille, Lois. Forever Open, Clear, and Free: The Struggle for Chicago’s Lakefront. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.


Audubon Chicago Region:

Chicago Audubon Society:

Chicago Ornithological Society:

Chicago Park District: Northerly Island:

Chicago Region Birding Trail Guide:

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