10 Reasons to Bird Illinois

Illinois has no coast, although Lake Michigan can look like an ocean at times. Illinois has no mountains, yet the southern portion of the state has cliffs and canyons that you’d think belonged out west. And Illinois isn’t a wandering bird hotbed like Alaska, Arizona, or Florida, yet there have been quite a few rarities none the less. When all is said and done, the Prairie State has racked up 436 bird species on the official checklist, and is sure to grow.

Here are ten reasons to go birding in Illinois:

  1. 37 Warblers – Each year 37 species of warblers make their way through some part of Illinois. While a lot of these are migrants heading to places far north or returning to places way south, quite a few of these bundles of energy stick around to breed. Warblers such as Swainson’s, Worm-eating, Cerulean, Yellow-throated, Hooded, Kentucky, Northern Parula, and Yellow-breasted Chat are perennial nesters.

    Yellow-throated Warbler

  2. The Mississippi Flyway – Warblers aren’t the only migrants to head through Illinois. The mighty Mississippi River attracts millions of birds of numerous species during migration. Nearly any good spot along the Mississippi can hold great numbers of neotropical birds.
  3. Lake Michigan – While not an ocean, Lake Michigan is a magnet for attracting ducks, grebes, loons, gulls, and all sorts of wayward birds. Famous places like Montrose are always turning up odd birds but even the regulars are fun to search for.
  4. Prairie Birds – The Prairie State is a small shadow of what it was in terms of prairies, but with conservation efforts there are still some remnants. These are places to look for Henslow’s, Grasshopper, Savannah, Lark, and Vesper Sparrows along with Upland Sandpiper, Bobolinks, Dickcissels, and Sedge Wrens. Some places now have Greater Prairie-Chickens with more locations on the way.
  5. Sedge Wren

  6. 8 Owls – Throughout the year it is possible to find 8 species of owls in Illinois, an impressive number for not being way north or in the mountains. These include: Great-Horned, Barred, Barn, Long-eared, Short-eared, Eastern-screech, Northern Saw-Whet, and Snowy.
  7. Wintering Eagles and Gulls – There are places in Illinois during the winter that are so covered with Bald Eagles you’d think it was Alaska. More rarely, Golden Eagles can also be spotted. Along Lake Michigan and along major rivers with open water (by dams) there are often numerous species of gulls hanging out together. There is even a yearly Gull Frolic held.
  8. Cool Nesting Birds – Most birders would be surprised to know that Painted Buntings nest in Illinois. Bewick’s Wren is also a recent nester and a species that historically ranged throughout much of Illinois. There is always the great chance to find new and interesting birds that breed in the state.

    Turkey Vulture by Rock River

  9. Rarities – Just like any state, Illinois has its fair share of rare bird sightings. Over the last couple of years we’ve had Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Vermillion Flycatcher, Least Tern, Varied Thrush, Roseate Spoonbill, Wood Stork, Ross’s Gull, and many more.
  10. Rich History – Illinois has a long and rich history of birds. Ivory-billed Woodpeckers ranged into southern Illinois. Whooping Cranes pass through each year. Smith’s Longspur and American Golden-Plovers come through each year. From top to bottom, east to west, Illinois is loaded with wonderful birds.
  11. Large Community of Helpful Birders – Illinois has a lot of birders but more importantly, a lot of helpful birders. IBET, Illinois’ bird sighting site is a great place to hear about recent bird sightings and learn from some of the best.

4 thoughts on “10 Reasons to Bird Illinois

  1. One of the most overlooked avian spectacles in North America is the staging of American Golden-Plover each April in Champaign, Piatt, and Vermillion Counties. Some ecotourism entrepreneur should start offering tours!

  2. Thanks for sharing this great list. I’m an amateurish photographer trying to take good bird pictures in Chicago. Just looking in my backyard this past year has opened my eyes to how many birds we have here. I hope to see more migrants this fall and the coming spring.

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