Published: September 4, 2015

Northerly Island reopens!

It's been a long time coming: after more than two years of construction, this morning Northerly Island officially reopened. Although not "officially" open until 10am, many people were out early this morning enjoying the new paved walkway that loops through the southern 40 acres of the park. I was one of those people, hoping for some interesting migrants and checking out the site's birding potential. 

Every bit of open space on the lakefront is important for the birds themselves as a place to rest and refuel, and Northerly Island's location--jutting out into the lake--makes it an especially important site. According to eBird, no fewer than 241 species have been reported there. It has been particularly good for grassland migrants, birds like Nelson's and Le Conte's Sparrows, Bobolink, Sedge Wren, and Short-eared Owl. It's also attracted some great rarities over the years, most recently Brewer's Sparrow and Sage Thrasher. But what does the future hold for birding here?

This morning was very quiet, with virtually no migrants. That's not an indictment of the habitat, however; it just wasn't a good day for migrants. In fact, the new Northerly Island has the potential to be just as good, if not better, as a birding destination than it was previously. The southern forty acres, where the construction took place and where most birders will focus their efforts, is primarily made up of two habitats--grasslands and pond. The grasslands (which lie on small hills) will undoubtedly attract good numbers of sparrows and other grassland migrants, just as the old Northerly did, but it may take some time until the vegetation has matured enough for the birds to arrive. The vegetation is still sparse in some places, however, and even this morning there were contractors out spraying invasive species. There are also plans to add 400 trees and 12,000 shrubs by 2017, which should enhance the habitat and make it attractive to a greater diversity of migrating birds. 

The pond--which this morning had a couple of cormorants, small groups of Mallards and Canada Geese, and a Great Blue Heron--is particularly intriguing. The edges are lined with wetland vegetation, and although the water levels are currently too high for shorebirds, I can imagine large shorebirds, interesting waterfowl, or even an ibis dropping in at some point. They'd have to be tolerant of people to stick around for long, however, given how close the paved trail is to much of the pond. The edges of the pond could attract rails, Marsh Wrens, and other migrants that like wetter grasslands, so long as that vegetation doesn't get trampled by fishermen and others wanting to get close to the water. 

The biggest downside of the new development is the fact that from most of the path, you can see neither Lake Michigan nor Burnham Harbor. One of the great things about the old Northerly was the expansive view of the lake, so that while tromping through the grasslands for sparrows you could also be watching for migrating ducks, shorebirds, and terns flying over the lake (not to mention the lake is simply nice to look at!). Now you will have to climb up on the rip-rap for a view of the lake. The once-expansive views of the sky are also more limited now due to the addition of hills, so watching for migrants coming from the north will be a little more difficult. 

As of now, there is fence lining the entire trail, understandably preventing access to the grasslands and pond edge while the vegetation takes hold. It also prevents access to the lakeshore rip-rap and the west side of the park, preventing views of the harbor. You can get good views of the pond, which will be worth keeping an eye on this fall, even if the fence will make birding difficult otherwise.  The northern half of the island remains open and is still worth checking, too, especially the east side with its weedy vegetation, shrubs, and cottonwoods. It will be some time--years even--until the full birding potential of the new Northerly Island is realized, but in the meantime the birding will be good and I plan on checking it regularly.