On July 16th, cable network HBO premiered an original documentary by filmmaker Jeffrey Kimball entitled ‘Birders: The Central Park effect.’ Remarkable footage and eloquent interviews make the film a joy for birders and non-birders alike. But having birds in urban parks is not unique to New York City. Chicago parks, especially those near the lakefront, concentrate migrating birds—and birdwatchers.
Chicago lies along a major migratory route for many bird species. After migrating overnight, birds stop at dawn to rest and feed in the first habitat they see, often a park near the lake. Peak spring migration is in May, although some migrants come through as early as March. Fall migration is more extended, with migrants passing through from August to November.
Among popular Chicago bird watching spots are the ‘magic hedge’ at Montrose beach, and Wooded Island in Jackson Park. More than 300 bird species have been seen at Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary, many in an unassuming patch of bushes known as the magic hedge. Wooded Island, which lies behind The Museum of Science and Industry, was created for Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition; more than 250 species of birds have been spotted there. Today, much of the Island forms the Paul Douglas Nature Sanctuary.
‘Birders: The Central Park effect’ has much to recommend it to anyone curious about the remarkable, but often unnoticed, phenomenon of bird migration. The film includes footage of many colorful and elusive birds, as well as interviews with a diversity of articulate bird watchers. John Fitzpatrick, Director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, offers valuable insights into bird migration. Dr. Fitzpatrick, whose comments combine scientific authority with the wonder of bird watching, served as curator of birds and chairman of the zoology department at Chicago’s Field Museum between 1978 and 1989.
The documentary’s main shortcoming is the impression it gives that Central Park is unique in its ability to attract birds and birdwatchers. For example, it refers to the annual Christmas Bird Count in Central Park, but fails to mention that Christmas counts occur throughout the United States. Instituted in 1900 as a conservation-minded alternative to holiday bird hunts, Christmas Bird Counts take place in more than 2,000 U.S. locations each year.
As cities and other developments consume land, small patches of habitat across the country, including in Chicago, are becoming last oases for migratory birds. What the documentary does well is illustrate how vital one of those places is to birds and to those who love to watch them.