June 26, 2016

Slow Walk: Montrose Dunes/Sanctuary, June 23, 2016


Lake Michigan from the Montrose Dunes
Montrose Beach & Bird Sanctuary
Thursday June 23, 2016
Slow Walk
Overcast, but humid and warm, 80F
All photos made with my OnePlus One phone


I had a bit of a headache on this morning so I jumped out for a quick walk on Montrose Point. It was supposed to be only a brief walk to clear my head to write, but it ended up lasting around an hour and a half. The extended trip kept me there because there were plenty of interesting things to see since my last visit, particularly the dunes. Here's some of the interesting things I saw today. It was overcast but pretty warm and extremely humid. Being outside for only 15 minutes already had me sweating in a tee and shorts. All of Chicago was covered in this thick, mucky air.

Foggy Chicago at Montrose Harbor

First on the docket, I spotted a large family of mallards playing in the harbor before I even got to the prairie-forest of the point. There were so many babies...how does this mom keep track!?

Mallard family

Mallard family

Second, I was treated with a visit from a melanistic squirrel. I haven't seen one of these in Chicago - my last one being in DC. I chattered at it, and it curiously crept up and down the tree to see if I had any tasties to give. It posed for a few photos, but because of the lighting during this morning, they were pretty fuzzy.

Melanistic (black) gray squirrel

Shadows looking at you

He looked like a cute little bear climbing a tree. I hope to see it again.

Melanistic (black) gray squirrel

The swallow hotel at Montrose Harbor was well occupied and full of chatter from its residents. Swallows dipped in and out, and could be seen swooping parallel to the water's surface in the harbor.

Sparrow House

Prairie walking, birdsong, and flowering plants

I walked through the dense green prairies and forest at the edge of the harbor in the morning, around 9am. The night before was a powerful storm, soaking the ground thoroughly. Fat drops of water pooled on the leaves at the entrance to the bird sanctuary and magic hedge as I arrived. A mist continued to linger on the city during the entirety of my jaunt.

Wildflowers front Foggy Chicago

The prairie fields on the at Montrose Harbor at the hedge, point, and bird sanctuary were all colors with wildflowers and weeds. A thick air filled the field's paths with all the humidity, but that didn't stop the many blackbirds from having a good morning. A number of bees were also out enjoying the tall flowers.

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Foggy Chicago skyline, lakeshore prairie

I had thought that most of the spring flowers had since given way to the summer's colors. However, many species of tall grasses and other prairie plants continued to flower into June. The prairies turned the point at Montrose into an urban jungle. Its density makes you entirely forget that there's a line of skyscrapers and an oceanic lake just beyond the trees.

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The grasses stood tall, then down, under the weight of their seeds.

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Hanging grasses, sweeping the path

Hanging tallgrasses


Dried husks of older plants, probably from last year, stand as new annuals and perennials take root. These sentinels remain as a reminder of the lifecycle of the prairie and that the disappearance of flowers in a prairie doesn't necessarily mean the death of the plant.

Finished flowers

Tromping down these trails, I was thinking that we've become pretty desensitized to the complexity of prairies in modern life. However, in the brief hour that I wandered the trails, I was reflective of the amount of diverse life that thrived here. Sure, much of it has been replanted and conscious, meticulous effort has been put in by volunteers to restore this area to a more native prairie habitat. However, if they stay true to form, the volunteers will have simply helped to restore it back to what it was. Plants and animals are pretty versatile and adaptive, provided they have enough of the complexity to thrive. This small patch of ground, despite not being -original- prairie, can teach us many things about how life was like in the tall grassland and how the removal of even one weed can alter life in the greens. It also reminds us of the color and vibrancy diverse life can exhibit in a prairie.

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A design feature I like about the bird sanctuary and Magic Hedge at Montrose is the fusion of prairie and forest. The paths are charming as they lead you from one habitat to the next.

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Urban escape

Forest Path

Canopies and arches abound on the point. They simply beg you to walk them and learn their stories.

Thicket darkness

Hanging grasses, sweeping the path

Forest arch

I walked along the lake on my way back to the Lakeshore Trail. The forested edge of the point was on my right, and a small strip of prairie to my left between the lake and the path.

Lakefront Prairie Path

As I was leaving the point, I suddenly heard a deep, loud hum of bees. Careful to not run into a nest (as I have done before), I immediately stopped in my tracks and looked for the nest. Seeing no obvious nests, I slowly inched forward with my eyes peeled. Then I looked up, spotting the source. Hundreds, if not thousands of bees were overhead in the blooming trees. I'm not yet sure as to what kind of tree this was (I'll ID it later...), but the bees seemed to like it.

Tree blooms

And these trees attracted all kinds of pollinators. I saw both honeybees and bumblebees jumping around between blooms in the canopy.

Some beetle friends also were abundant on the prairie plants if you looked close enough. They were almost as colorful as their flower free parking.

Beetle

Beetle


Dunes study

The bird sanctuary spits you out at the Montrose Dunes preservation area. It's connected to the Montrose Beach recreation site. Despite the sand being soaked, many Chicagoans were already enjoying the volleyball nets and water at 9 in the morning.

Forest meets dunes

Montrose Beach after big storm

The dunes habitat is nondescript save for a couple signs, so you'd never even know it was there unless you were looking for it. Some bright flowers that I saw from a distance drew me in like a honeybee for a better look. Guess I'm attracted to colorful objects.


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The dunes habitat is another area that has seen some significant work from volunteer naturalists and conservation organizations. A dense field of plants are anchored into the sand and provide cover for the small birds that call these dunes home.


Many of the plants have been introduced annually to get a critical mass of annuals and perennials regrowing on their own. The yellow flowers (which I lazily have not identified yet as of writing this) were joined by many tall stalked plants in the sand. All of this landscape reminded me of Oregon in so many ways. These fields look like meadows, but they're all on sand (and some are underwater, which I'll show more of below)

Dune plant life

Mosquito and color

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Birds that make their homes in the sand were hard at work defending their territory. Sand birds (again, I am lazy and haven't identified them yet, but will return to this post at some point hopefully) were chasing off sparrows, swallows, and red-winged blackbirds.

Walking the path

On the ropes

Speaking of the blackbirds, they were out in force as well, singing their loud song and showing off their red shoulderpads. One screeched at me from a sign, as if he was reminded me I was on protected ground. I respected the sign and pathways. I had run into a blackbird nest just a week before on accident and had to face a divebombing female for a few minutes as a result. I don't want to bother your nest. I just want to look around.

Red-winged blackbird, protecting the turf

Loud sandbirds ran along the grainy path with their stick legs. They're always entertaining to watch, although I have sometimes yet to figure out what they're looking for.

For one species I saw, it was searching for food and didn't mind my presence. It slowly walked on the ground. One telling sign for its ID was its bobbing butt feathers, kind of like a sora or a rail.

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As I walked on the path, a sand bird got angry with me and tried to distract me away from the trail. I was pretty sure I was on to something, as the bird would not leave its post next to me, displayed itself fancily, and chirped loudly when I moved. It was trying to get my attention and was super close to not have an agenda. After snapping a couple photos, I left it in peace.

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Protecting the nest

Some of the dune area continues to be under water. Even though there are paths marked, there was no walking down them for sheer practicality. The super rainstorm that we had the night previous helped with this water content, but this dune pond was on saturated ground and wasn't going away anytime soon. It's interesting to see a pond at a sand dune, just inches away from an ocean-lake. The tall stalk plants (lazy ID, again) spread the pond, giving it the appearance of dry ground. I wonder if anyone makes their nest in there?

Standing water

Overwatered path

The dune hugs right up to the lake. I don't think the lake floods over very often, so sandbirds with nests on the ground likely don't have to worry. However, I did find some evidence of the lake's freshwater mussel community, so the lake must wash up every now and then.

Lake Michigan from the Montrose Dunes

History of Freshwater Mussels

Keeping watch

There's one big dune with a cluster of trees at its peak. This is one of my favorite spots, as it is with many others as well. I always see beer bottles up there, so clearly people like its natural aspects but can't respect that it's some other creatures' home as well. Nonetheless, the treetop dune is one of the defining features of these sandy paths.

Dunes trees

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Wildflowers and Weeds I saw

Many of these flowers classify as weeds, but I believe they add to the diversity of the prairie. I think many of these also provide tasty food for pollinators, despite their weed status. The group that maintains the nature areas does a good job. I wonder how many of these native plants are recently planted, and how many have been starting to come up on their own after a few years of the intensive work that has been done on the area?

Here's an inventory of the flowering plants I saw on my walk in the prairie:

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IMG_20160623_110023 IMG_20160623_110459 Thistle

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IMG_20160623_112331 Wild Columbine IMG_20160623_121041

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