Discover Where Nature Meets the City | A Change in Flight Plans: From An Airport to Bird Paradise
7 September 2017
exceptional location with a storied past.
Keeping Grant Park pristine and unobstructed began after the initial declaration of natural preservation of Chicago’s lakeshore in 1836. Northerly Island, walking distance from 1000M, once housed Meigs Field Airport, which, after operating since 1947, came to an infamous end in 2013. While the controversial legacy of its nighttime shut down continues to raise eyebrows, new wings take to the sky on Northerly Island, which has become the best bird watching opportunity in Chicago’s bustling Loop.
Following the airport’s unexpected end, Northerly Island has been transformed into a quieter extension of Grant Park. A natural ecosystem is being painstakingly introduced into the area, along with public artwork. The old airport terminal has been repurposed as a visitor’s center. At the northern end of the island, the Huntington Bank Pavilion is a redeveloped music venue.
Joggers, bikers and beachgoers aren’t the only ones taking advantage of the transformation. More than half of all bird species found in Illinois have added Northerly Island to their migratory routes, creating a bird watching paradise. The extensive list includes varieties of ducks, thrushes, owls and more. Birders have also spotted rare birds such as Brants, a type of sea goose, Sage Thrashers and Brewer’s Sparrows. The combination of fresh water, a manmade lagoon, a restored native ecosystem and relative silence make Northerly Island an ideal nesting place for a wide variety of birds.
Birds species found in Illinois have increased roughly five percent in the last 50 years, the growth often concentrated in urban areas where species have adapted to city environments, and benefit from maturing tree canopies and the growth of bird-feeding as a hobby. The increase of parks in city areas, such as Northerly Island, has also contributed to the boom.
Jeff Walk, the Director of Conservation at the Illinois Chapter of The Nature Conservancy and co-author of Illinois Birds: A Century of Change, sees the rise in park space and the restoration of natural ecosystems as critical to conservation efforts and the increased diversity of birds in urban areas.
“Spaces like Northerly Island give birds pit stops to rest and refuel on their migration routes,” Jeff explains. They also provide an excellent marketing opportunity for conservation. “These places give people living in urban areas a connection to nature they otherwise would not have.” He added the introduction of wetlands and native plants on Northerly Island give Chicagoans the chance to experience an authentic and beautiful ecosystem.
Northerly Island is equipped with a wildlife rehabilitation center that specializes in injured and orphaned birds. The only wildlife rehabilitation center in the city, the Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation Center has drastically decreased fatalities due to head injuries caused by birds striking Chicago buildings.
Jeff encourages amateur or hopeful birders to try their luck on Northerly Island. “Even a moderately invested birder can see over 100 species in a year.” He added, “When bird watching, don’t just look for birds. Look for movement. It’s difficult to spot a motionless bird, but the eye is good at tracking movement when birds fly from one perch to another.”
Today, it’s hard to imagine an airport ever existed so close to 1000M. Along with bird watching, Northerly Island is now the perfect spot to enjoy lake breezes as you pedal along the bike paths. On weekday mornings, the tranquil island can be perfect for a stroll along the 12th Street Beach or simply gazing out at Lake Michigan.