walks at the Garden

BYO Binoculars

The Best Bird-Watching Spots

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Distance: 2 milesTime: 1 hour 30 min to 2 hours

Stop 1: Barbara Brown Nature Reserve

When it comes to birding, the Garden has it all: land, water, shoreline, trees, fish, feeders, and plants. Thousands and thousands of plants. That rich, diverse mix makes the Garden one of Chicagoland's most compelling locations for both amateur and Audubon-level birdwatching.

Where are the best spots for spotting birds? We turned to senior ecologist Jim Steffen (our go-to guy for all things "bird") for his advice ("Look around, be still, be patient,") and top recommendations.

Birds love the quiet as much as visitors do in this off-the-beaten-path natural area. Beneath the trees is a sunny, open understory that appeals to wood-pewees, great crested flycatchers, and indigo buntings. Watch the flycatcher's insect-catching strategy: Spot an insect in the air. Dart out from perch. Grab insect mid-flight. Return to perch.

A pond attracts cormorants, which rest on fallen trees, plus green, great blue, and night herons. Nesting boxes for wood ducks dot the reserve.
 

Stop 2: Dixon Prairie Part 1

Serious birders flock to Dixon Prairie, where the unusual mix of six prairie habitats attracts grassland species both common (song, savannah, and swamp sparrows) and rare (migrating sharp-tailed and Le Conte’s sparrows). In summer, watch for orchard orioles and eastern kingbirds in the bur oak savanna; in colder weather, look for snow buntings, longspurs, and horned larks.

The wide-angle view of the sky lets you track sandhill cranes, shorebirds, raptors, herons, and egrets as they fly by.
 

Stop 3: Dixon Prairie Part 2

Looking for shorebirds? Though the prairie sounds like an unlikely spot, the outer path has a great view of recently-formed mud flats caused by silt build-up in the lake’s shallower water. Set up a scope to eye Caspian terns; greater and lesser yellowlegs; and semipalmated, pectoral, and least sandpipers.
 

Stop 4: Dixon Prairie Part 3

Marsh Island is one of the most protected (and least visited) locations at the Garden. Follow the prairie's paths out there and, during migration, you may flush ground-dwelling Wilson’s snipe and short-eared owls. Migration also brings well-camouflaged birds of the marshy grasslands: keen eyes might spot secretive and shy Virginia rails and sora, or, more rarely, diminutive yellow rails and black rails.
 

Stop 5: Waterfall Garden Part 1

The tall, rocky, east-facing slope of the waterfall is the first place to catch the sun’s light every morning. Insects get active early there, which means that warblers, vireos, and thrushes do, too.
 

Stop 6: Waterfall Garden Part 2

Walk up to the top level to watch warblers zip between the deciduous trees in the Waterfall Garden (where there's water) and the Dwarf Conifer Garden next door (where there are evergreens, preferred by nesting migrants).

On cool spring and fall mornings, the east-facing slope warms up early - a boon for birds and birdwatchers alike.
 

Stop 7: McDonald Woods Part 1

McDonald Woods hums with different bird activity in different seasons.

In spring and summer: Winter wrens, warblers, and woodland thrushes signal spring migration. Follow the calls of red-bellied, downy, and hairy woodpeckers in summer (red-eyed vireos and eastern wood-pewees, too). Indigo buntings frequent the woodland-bordered outer road in summer: watch for a flash of blue and listen for a twice-repeated note.
 

Stop 8: McDonald Woods Part 2

There's no perfect birdwatching spot in the woods—birds move constantly through the trees, so keep eyes and ears open. Fall is a good time to test yourself on hard-to-identify fall warblers and flocks of sparrows: fox, white-throated, white-crowned. While few birds remain in the woods in the heart of winter, you may hear white-breasted nuthatch, black-capped chickadee, and even the far-off hoot of a great horned owl.
 

Stop 9: On the Fly: Purple Martins

Contrary to popular belief, purple martins rarely eat mosquitoes - they prefer high-flying ants, beetles, and dragonflies.

Purple martins migrate north from Argentina every spring, arriving year after year here around April 14. They're communal nesters, so we've placed three multi-compartment bird houses on the outer west road; two more are near the golf course just past McDonald Woods. Male martins are dark purple; females are lighter in color.
 

Stop 10: On the Fly: Gulls

Head to the water in early spring for gull-watching: as the ice begins to melt, frozen, winter-killed fish are exposed, and the gulls are quick to feast on them. You'll see lots of common herring and ring-billed gulls, but look closely for rare lesser black-backed gulls, or the Arctic-breeding glaucous and Thayer's gulls.

Black-headed Franklin's gulls may show up in small flocks during migrations—also, on occasion, a similar-looking visitor from the south, the laughing gull.
 

Stop 11: On the Fly: Rare Sightings

Asked about unusual or rare bird sightings at the Garden, senior ecologist Jim Steffen names the vermilion flycatcher, from the far southwest; the scissortail flycatcher, from the Oklahoma area; the western kingbird from the great plains; reddish egrets from the Gulf of Mexico; and Townsend's warbler, a Pacific northwestern native identified here just once, more than ten years ago.

Spotted a bird of interest? Record your sighting in our daily record book located at the Visitor Center front desk.