Birding & Brunch on the Lake
by Stephanie Folk
Photo: Allan J. Sander
MOST OF THE WORLD knows Chicago for its food, music, and sports, but the city, sitting on a major migratory flyway, also happens to be one of the country’s richest places for birdwatching, or “birding.” Because millions of birds concentrate along Lake Michigan’s edge every spring and fall — stopping off at natural spaces and friendly green yards as they migrate — city residents can take in the city skyline just minutes from home while spotting birds of every description: shorebirds, warblers, orioles, bluebirds, falcons, owls — more than 300 species in all.
And what could top off a morning of great birdwatching better than a belly full of eggs, bacon, or pancakes at one of Chicago’s many breakfast or brunch places? We searched out a few that were close to birding hotspots and known for their unique character.
Chicago’s lakefront runs about 30 miles north and south, with “bird sanctuaries” and other hotspots spread regularly along it. Hitting one or two spots will satisfy many birders, though others, usually in cars, do “cover the waterfront.” The lakefront is generally accessible by car, with parking available in some but not all places. Still, a world-class 18-mile lakefront path makes biking the perfect mode of travel.
The migration season begins in March, peaks around May, and declines by June. (Breakfast season is year-round.) So grab your binoculars and head out first thing in the morning. Then relax over hash browns to tell some big bird stories.
To start near the north end of the city, head to Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary, situated at the end of Montrose Avenue just east of Lake Shore Drive. The sanctuary features the vaunted “Magic Hedge,” a stretch of shrubs and trees known for attracting preternatural concentrations of bird life. Look for warblers and woodpeckers among the trees (birders have seen the rare Kirtland’s and Connecticut warblers) and a variety of sparrows in the park’s grassy areas. The sandy, windswept Montrose Beach Dunes nestle on the east side of the point. There, close to or on the water, visitors sometimes see wildly colored waterfowl and shorebirds, including red-breasted mergansers, whimbrels, and even the federally endangered piping plover.
Enjoy a Swedish breakfast in Andersonville at Ann Sather, 5207 N. Clark Street, or Svea, 5236 N. Clark. For something lighter, try the cozy-hip Urban Tea Lounge, 838 W. Montrose, (773) 907-8726, an easy walk from the point, where you can enjoy a glass of loose-leaf tea, some sour-cream coffee cake, or chili.
Travel south to Bill Jarvis Migratory Bird Sanctuary at Addison Avenue near the lake (it’s right behind the totem pole along the bike path). A fence protects the six-acre wooded sanctuary from heavy human traffic, giving birds a safe place to rest, find food, or nest. Visitors can enjoy birding the area from along the perimeter, including a bird-viewing platform. Watch for black-crowned night-herons, snipe, woodcocks, and even hummingbirds (especially in the fall).
Photo: Eric Secker
Stroll a few blocks west and south to the Chicago Diner at 3411 N. Halsted, (773) 935-6696, to enjoy a hearty vegan or vegetarian brunch at this Lakeview spot. Or stop in at Orange, 3231 N. Clark Street, (773) 549-4400, for a bite of “frushi,” a breakfast sushi made with fruit and sweet rice. For an elegant brunch (Sundays only, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.), head south about two miles to North Pond, 2610 N. Cannon Drive, (773) 477-5845. Keep your binoculars handy. The restaurant sits so close to its namesake waterbody — another great place for spotting waterfowl and songbirds — that you can practically bird from your table.
Roughly five miles south, swing through the Museum Campus and head to Northerly Island, former site of the Meigs Field airport. Located just south of the Adler Planetarium, the island now hosts a temporary concert venue, though the Park District plans to restore natural habitat on the island. The island’s 91-acre open grassy expanse makes it a good place to spot birds such as LeConte’s and grasshopper sparrows, not to mention shorebirds, gulls, and songbirds. (It’s also a winter hangout for the snowy owl.) A short trip across the land bridge and a bit south will take birders to McCormick Place Bird Sanctuary, south of 31st Street in Burnham Park. Planted in 2003, the shrub-ringed grassland actually grows atop an underground parking garage just south of massive McCormick Place. The sanctuary attracts such birds as long-eared owls, sora rails, and even an American bittern.
From McCormick Place, it’s a short trip to China Town, where you can brunch on dim sum at The Phoenix, 2131 S. Archer Avenue, (312) 328-0848. Or pick from a huge selection of delicious Asian dishes, fruit smoothies and bubble teas at Joy Yee’s Noodles, 2159 S. China Place, (312) 328-0001.
Continue along Lake Shore Drive to Jackson Park in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. The most popular birding area in this large park (for people and songbirds) is Wooded Island, between 59th and 63rd Streets just east of Stony Island Avenue. According to the Chicago Park District, as many as 250 species of birds have been seen here, with 48 species successfully nesting, among them bank swallows near the park’s southern end. While in Jackson Park, keep your ears open for the famous Hyde Park parakeets. The noisy, bright green monk parakeets aren’t native, but they are intriguing.
In Hyde Park, pick up coffee and a pastry at Istria Café, 1520 E. 57th Street, (773) 955-2556, or grab a pizza for lunch at Medici, 1327 E. 57th Street, (773) 667-7394. You can also enjoy a big breakfast any time before 4 p.m. at Valois, 1518 E. 53rd Street, (773) 667-0647. Bring cash since this Hyde Park institution doesn’t take credit cards.
Photo: Rob Curtis/
Our southernmost stop, the South Shore Cultural Center Nature Sanctuary hides out south of the fieldhouse at 7059 S. South Shore Drive. The park district has been improving wildlife habitat in the sanctuary since 2001 and has planted native shrubs and wildflowers. The woodland, prairie, and dune habitats at the site offer refuge for a wide variety of migrating birds. Near the water, you can contemplate your day and take in the skyline at the circular limestone benches designed by architect Jens Jensen.
While you’re in the South Shore neighborhood, stop at Exchange Café, 7201 S. Exchange Avenue, 773-336-8592, to lounge and chat over coffee and pastries.
For more about how, when, and where to see the region’s beautiful birds, order the free Chicago Lakefront Birding Trail Guide, (312) 742-7529. To go birding outside the city, find the Chicago Region Birding Trail Guide at (312) 744-7606.
For a cozy place to stay on the North Side, try the Old Town Chicago Bed and Breakfast Inn, 1442 N. Park Avenue, (312) 440-9268. The Windy City Urban Inn in Lincoln Park, 607 W. Deming Place, (773) 248-7091, has a relaxed, homey feel and serves a satisfying breakfast. Prefer a central location near the Museum Campus? Check into the Best Western Grant Park, 1100 S. Michigan Avenue, (312) 922-2900, or the Hilton Chicago at 720 S. Michigan Avenue, (312) 922-4400. Finally, if you prefer to station your birding operations near Wooded Island, relax at the Wooded Isle Suites at 5750 S. Stony Island, (773) 288-5578.