If warblers had Outlook calendars, the month of September would be marked, "Fly south."
And some would have an extra note: "Stop at Wooded Island."
They do, in profusion. For anyone curious to see the colorful birds that pass through Chicago on their way to the tropics, Wooded Island, a patch of woods and meadow along the lakefront just south of the Museum of Science and Industry, is a prime spot.
The entire Chicago lakefront, of course, is famed for attracting migrating birds. Birds fly at night along the shore of Lake Michigan, then at dawn look for spots of green where they can stop to rest. Every fall and spring, leafy areas along the lake become bird-watching paradises.
But Wooded Island is exceptional. Judy Pollock, director of bird conservation at Audubon Chicago Region, considers it the best spot on the lakefront because it includes a lakefront rarity – woods.
Strolling through the pleasant greenery on a recent bird walk, Paul Clyne, who has been birding here and keeping detailed records since 1979, extolled the site.
"Of all the various lakefront parks, Wooded Island has some of the lushest vegetation around," he said. "Birds use parks to stop. Here, they'll stick around."
A wide variety of plants and the presence of the lagoon attract a diversity of birds. The density of the greenery gives good cover from predators and wind. Insects and fruit provide food.
Migrating birds — 160 to 180 species in a typical fall migration by Clyne's count — dally here for days at a time. Birders dally here every Wednesday and Saturday morning to see them.
You can too.
You don't have to be a birder. No previous knowledge is required to go on and enjoy a bird walk. Think of it as a nice ramble through woods with a group of friendly people pointing out birds for you.
The conversation is regularly interrupted with announcements of sightings.
"Two more red-breasted nuthatches," Clyne reported, looking through his binoculars.
"Swainson's thrush; first one I've seen this year," said Hal Cohen, a retired field biology professor who birds here regularly.
"Wilson's warbler," he called out moments later. "Yeah," several people happily replied in chorus as the bird flew off.
Walking through Wooded Island just got even easier. The Chicago Park District last month covered the dirt trails that run through the island's center with wood chips, making a walk there feel less like bushwhacking and more like strolling.
"We want to make sure it looks welcoming and accommodating to all sorts of users, not just trailblazers," said Mitchell Murdock, natural areas manager for the Park District.
The district also installed a wide path with timber edges through the misnamed Rose Garden, which is in fact a meadow of more than 20,000 native plants planted after invasive species were removed.
"The plantings they've done, the trees they've put in, make it unbelievably beautiful," said Jerry Levy, the site's volunteer steward.
And not just for birders, but for any urban soul seeking respite. "It's such a fantastic thing to walk over there," he said. "The minute you cross the bridge and get on the island you feel like you're in a different paradise."
To help visitors feel more secure, the Jackson Park Advisory Council has been deploying volunteers to walk through the woods and call police to roust drug dealers and prostitutes.
"We've made huge inroads," said Louise McCurry, president of the council. "It is now a safe place ... where families can enjoy a wonderful, quiet, calming nature experience in the city."
Changes to the beloved spot, however, are a delicate and sometimes contentious matter. Birders prize wildness, and some feel the Park District has removed too much of it.
"Birds need habitat," said Patricia Durkin, who leads the weekly Saturday morning bird walks on Wooded Island. "The average warbler is not going to take out a reference book to find out if a berry is native or non-native or considered invasive."
This summer she and other birders objected to the Park District's plan to install a 6-foot-wide, timber-edged path down the center of the island. They protested that it would take out too much vegetation, be too intrusive and damage the roots of nearby trees.
The district scaled back the plan, and instead simply covered the existing trails with wood chips.
"It's a really nice compromise," Cohen said as we walked over them.
We walked over the wide trail through the Rose Garden too, where monarch butterflies tumbled through the air and alighted on the lavender blooms of newly planted swamp weed. There were muddy raccoon paw prints on the trail-edge timbers.
A sudden ruckus in a tree turned out to be three hawks. Raptor expert Cohen identified a Cooper's hawk and a red-tailed hawk, while the third bird went unidentified.
As we walked, Clyne, keeper of the statistics, noted every bird he saw or heard.
"Catbird," he murmured, into a tape recorder. "Cedar waxwing."
"Hummingbird," Cohen said, pointing out a ruby-throated hummingbird perched on a small tree a few feet away.
We headed off into the sunny morning. As we passed a clump of shrubs, a catbird chirped, "Meow."
IF YOU GO
Birders meet for walks at 7:15 a.m. Wednesdays and 8 a.m. Saturdays on the Clarence Darrow Memorial Bridge over the Jackson Park Lagoon. From Lake Shore Drive, just south of the Museum of Science and Industry, turn west onto Science Drive, then turn left into the parking lot. At the west end, park — and pay — and look for birders on the bridge.