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."