Best Places To Go Birdwatching in Illinois – Free & Paid Birding Locations

October 15, 2021 // 22 minute read

Birding Locations » US » Birding In Illinois

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Most surprisingly, many birding enthusiasts quickly learned that some of the most popular and best destinations for birding are found in and around the Chicago area. And let’s not forget about Lake Michigan. There are truly some wonderful and exciting birding destinations on the shore harbors that I know you’ll truly appreciate.

Believe it or not, Illinois bird watching is incredibly popular amongst locals and visitors who like to travel all around the US to visit many of the best and most popular birding hotspots. Moving beyond the Chicago city limits, there are a plethora of wildlife refuges, state parks, and other natural areas to visit including the Prairie Ridge SNA, the Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary, and other amazing destinations.

Birdwatching alone is fun if you love this activity, but it’s even better when you get together with a group of like-minded friends. Joining local Illinois bird-watching clubs and the National Audubon Society chapters in the area is a brilliant idea. I will share information about local groups, videos, their social media, and plenty of other info to help you get situated in the perfect bird-watching club in your community.

Did you know that the Cardinal is the state bird for Illinois?

cardinal pair in the snow
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Also, check out our birding resources for the neighboring states of Illinois: Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, Kentucky, Indiana, and Michigan.

Bird Watching Destinations In Illinois: Free Destinations

Residents of Illinois and those visiting are in for a real treat if they happen to enjoy birdwatching because this beautiful place has a wide array of free destinations to visit. There are many birds that are native to the area, as well as migratory birds to see too. 

Even better, within the Land of Lincoln, there are more than 420 different documented bird species for residents and travelers to enjoy and appreciate. Continue reading to find out more about these amazing and highly recommended free destinations to visit.

Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary – Free Admittance

Locals and visitors love spending time at Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary during the spring and fall months. Why? It’s one of the best Chicago hotspots for migrant songbirds, as well as other birds including waterbirds, gulls, grebes, waterfowl, and loons.

Even better, this bird sanctuary is a regular hotspot for many Chicago area birders, so there are plenty of people to talk to, learn about new sightings, exchange tips, and pleasantries, and so much more. It’s a wonderful place to visit if you want to see gorgeous birds and make a new friend or two as you discuss birding, birdwatching, conservation, and much more.

Location:

200 W. Montrose Harbor Dr.
Chicago, IL 60660
Phone: 312-742-7529

GPS: 41.9632° N, 87.6331° W

Hours Of Operation:

On their website, the Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary claims to remain open daily, seven days a week, from dusk until dawn. At the moment, the park typically opens at 6 AM and closes at 11 PM, which is a bit longer than technically projected.

Popular Birds Found At This Destination:

  • Magnificent Frigatebird
  • Groove-Billed Ani
  • Grace’s Warbler
  • Scissor-Tailed Flycatcher
  • Iceland Gull
  • Red-Throated Loon
  • Townsend’s Solitaire
  • Purple Gallinule
  • Black Rail
  • Wandering Tattler
  • Painted Bunting
  • Black-Tailed Gull

Hiking Trails:

Like any good birding area, you’ll discover a number of your favorite easy hiking trails in the Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary Region. The best part about these trails is that they are very short and they aren’t too difficult. So, if you do not typically spend time on hiking trails, don’t worry because there’s definitely something for you here as well.

The names and other important info regarding these hiking trails include the following:

  • Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary Paved Trail – to keep things nice and simple, the city of Chicago and the people running the bird sanctuary have created a beautiful paved trail for you and everyone else to walk upon. This is an easy trail to navigate, obviously, since it’s paved, and it’s relatively short at 0.9 miles. The average person shouldn’t have any trouble completing this trail in about 25 minutes.
  • Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary Inner Loop – this is also a relatively easy trail to walk upon, and even though it isn’t paved, it’s well-maintained and easy to navigate. The total length of the trail is only 0.3 miles, which the average person should have no trouble completing in around 10-15 minutes, because it’s very short but there are some astounding birds and beautiful wildlife along this path.
  • Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary Outer Loop – on the outer loop trail of the bird sanctuary, you’ll also have no trouble following the easy to tread upon path. It’s very clearly defined, well-maintained, and navigation is a cinch. And like the previous trail, it’s also very short because it’s only 0.3 miles from start to finish, and since it’s in a loop, you’ll get back to where you started in around 10 minutes.
  • Montrose Park Bird Sanctuary Trail – the main trail of the bird sanctuary is also easy to handle just like the varying offshoots. You’ll walk along the edge of the water in the grass and along the beach, where you can view remarkable birds, gorgeous wildlife, and scenery that feels like it was taken directly from your favorite painting. The total trail length is 1.4 miles long, which you should have no trouble finishing in about 45 minutes.

Illinois Beach State Park – Free Admission, Donations Appreciated

Going along Lake Michigan, the Illinois Beach State Park stretches for miles in either direction, and it will take you directly to the Wisconsin border. It’s a great diverse location and habitat for regional birders in the area. Even more exciting is that they’ve discovered around 300 bird species near the vicinity of the state park, so it’s definitely jam-packed with your favorite winged friends and it’s a great place to go birding with other birding enthusiasts.

Location:

1 Lake Front Dr.
Zion, IL 60099
Phone: 847-662-4811

GPS: 42.4237° N, 87.8053° W

Hours Of Operation:

Illinois Beach State Park is open seven days a week, Monday through Sunday, from 8 AM to 8 PM each day. Your best bet is to limit your visits to daylight hours to maximize your bird-watching experience.

Popular Birds Found At This Destination:

Hiking Trails:

Hikers and outdoor enthusiasts will appreciate the opportunity to tackle any one of the six hiking trails available for use at Illinois Beach State Park. Most of these trails are easy to navigate, but there is one trail that is moderately difficult, so if hiking isn’t necessarily your thing, you may want to avoid that particular trail and some of the long easy trails as well.

With that said, the names and other pertinent info include the following:

  • Illinois Beach State Park: North Unit Trail – this is definitely one of the easy trails I mentioned as far as how clear and well-maintained the hiking trail is. And it’s also very easy to navigate as well, but there is one hitch that may keep some people off of this trail. And that is the length, which is 7.9 miles. In total, if you decide to complete the entire hiking trail, it should take roughly 3 hours and 15 minutes to get from one end to the other. This might be a little bit too much of a challenge for beginner hikers.
  • Dune Trail Loop – this trail is also certainly on the easy side, because it’s a very clear path, the trail is maintained with expert precision, and it even takes you along the edge of Lake Michigan, so you’ll have beautiful scenery to enjoy as well. This trail is definitely shorter than the previous one mentioned, since it is only 1.8 miles. In total, this trail will take you roughly 45 minutes to complete.
  • Oak Ridge and Dune Trail Loop – this particular hiking trail is also relatively easy, so beginners and intermediate hikers will have no trouble walking along this clearly defined path. It takes you directly through the heart of the woods, so you’ll have the opportunity to view many incredible birds, some stunning flowers and other plant life, and even ground dwelling animals as well. The trail is only 1.4 miles long, which means you can likely complete the entire thing in about 35 minutes if you give it your all.
  • Illinois Beach Marsh Trail – this easy to navigate trail is very simple to follow because it’s on a dirt road but it’s a clearly defined path, well-maintained, and it takes you directly through the heart of the woods, so you’ll have an opportunity to see so many wonderful birds along your travels. Even better, this trail is a little bit longer than the previous two mentioned, but it’s not nearly as long as the first one since it’s only 3.1 miles in total distance. If you’re looking to spend an hour to an hour and 15 minutes hiking a gorgeous trail, then this is definitely the ideal option for you.
  • Illinois Beach Trail – even though it has a similar name to the previous one, it’s a different trail and a large chunk of this path is paved, right before you eventually end up taking a sandy beach path that’ll take you along Lake Michigan. This is an easy trail as well, since it’s only 1.4 miles in total length. Most people should have no problem completing this trail in 35 minutes or more.
  • Dead River and Dunes Loop Trail – this has kind of a scary name, right? But it’s not frightening, even though it’s moderately difficult to walk along because the trail isn’t as well defined and it isn’t as well maintained, but it’s not brutally difficult either. In fact, it’s 2 ½ miles long, and the average hiker should have zero trouble completing this trail in one hour flat from beginning to end, which I believe you can accomplish because I have faith in you.

Prairie Ridge State Natural Area – Free to Enter

Newton, IL residents enjoy this exciting stretch of land located 5 miles from their home. This stimulating habitat is wonderful because it’s filled with a wide array of your favorite birds. It’s more than 4000 acres in total, and it’s filled with rare grassland wildlife and it’s the perfect sanctuary to preserve and protect various bird species and other animals since 1961.

Location:

5295 N. 1000th Street
Newton, IL 62448
Phone: 618-783-8685

GPS: 38.9255° N, 88.1883° W

Hours Of Operation:

This preserved and protected public land is available to use seven days a week, 24 hours a day, and 365 days a year. It even remains open on holidays including Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. For birdwatching purposes, please feel free to visit during daylight hours from dusk until dawn to have the best experience possible.

Popular Birds Found At This Destination:

Hiking Trails:

Although there isn’t necessarily a plethora of available hiking trails in and around Prairie Ridge State Natural Area, there are still three great trails that I’d like to tell you about. Of the three, you’ll find two that are very easy to navigate and relatively manageable, and one that is moderately difficult and a bit longer and tougher than the others.

Learn more about these hiking trails below:

  • Eye of the Bog Trail – the fun thing about this hiking trail is that it takes you along the edge of a bog, it’s very easy to travel across, it’s very clear and distinct, and the trail itself is very easy to manage and navigate since it’s relatively short. The clear pathway is only 0.5 miles long, which the average hiker should easily complete in 15-20 minutes without any difficulty.
  • Prairie Ridge, Deer Path, and Tamarac View Trail – this is definitely the toughest trail of the three because every hiker that’s walked along this path says it is moderately difficult, although a large section of the path actually takes you across a wooden bridge, which is a whole lot of fun if you ask me. But the trail is 5.2 miles long, which may be a little bit difficult for some hikers. If you’re in good health and good spirits, you should complete this trail in two hours and five minutes.
  • Volo Bog Interpretive Trail – this exciting trail provides birdwatchers with a nice leisurely 3.7-mile stroll along Volo Bog. Thankfully, the terrain is easy to travel upon and even easier to navigate since it’s clearly defined and properly maintained. In total, the average person should take around an hour and a half to complete this interpretive trail from beginning to end.

Dixon Waterfowl Refuge – Free Bird Watching

For those Illinois residents living relatively close to Peoria, you’re in for a great treat because the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge is only 40 miles away in the north. Even better, this ecological wonderland was originally restored back in 2001, and now more than 270 different species of birds have been discovered in this Important Birding Area designated by the National Audubon Society.

Location:

780 East Rd.
Hennepin, IL 61327
Phone: 312-922-0777

GPS: 41.2163° N, 89.3212° W

Hours Of Operation:

The Dixon Waterfowl Refuge is open seven days a week and it’s open from dusk till dawn. You can visit any day of the year and even stop by to have a bird-watching excursion with family and friends on your favorite holidays.

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kq0-59LZ5mg 

Popular Birds Found At This Destination:

  • Bald Eagle
  • Short-Eared Owl
  • Tundra Swan
  • Greater White-Fronted Goose
  • Vesper Sparrow
  • Least Bittern
  • American White Pelican
  • Caspian Tern
  • Common Gallinule
  • Grasshopper Sparrow
  • Black-Crowned Night-Heron
  • Marsh Wren
  • Trumpeter Swan

Hiking Trails:

You’ll be happy to know that Dixon Waterfowl Refuge has many different walking paths going all throughout this designated area. Unfortunately, I only discovered the name and other pertinent details about one specific trail in general. But know that if you do visit the area, there will be lots of hiking, walking, and outdoor activities along clearly defined and well-manicured paths.

The name of the hiking trail that I’m about to share with you is as follows:

  • Marquis Oak Ridge Trail – the interesting thing about this particular trail is that it’s moderately difficult, according to other hikers. Although the path is clearly defined, there is lots of lush foliage surrounding the path, which certainly narrows the trail because it’s encroaching on the path a bit during the summer. But don’t worry, because you’ll have no trouble walking this beautiful path and seeing many amazing and gorgeous birds. All in all, the total trail length is 5.5 miles, which should take the average walker about two hours and five minutes to complete.

Eldon Hazlet State Recreation Area – Free Bird Watching, Paid Camping and Other Activities

This beautiful park and recreation area is more than 3000 acres and it’s located on the western shore of Carlyle Lake, which makes it a very attractive place to visit. In fact, it’s estimated that around 800,000 visitors come to the park each year for hunting, fishing, boating, camping, picnicking, and birdwatching. 

It also has 9 miles of hiking trails in the area as well, which means you’ll have a fun-filled time on this exciting birdwatching trip. They even have sailboat regattas each weekend during the summer.

Location:

20100 Hazlet Park Rd.
Carlyle, IL 62231
Phone: 618-594-3015

GPS: 38.6571° N, 89.3238° W

Hours Of Operation:

Park Office

Monday through Friday from 7:30 AM to 4 PM

To enter the park for birdwatching purposes, you are allowed to visit the area from dusk till dawn every day of the week including the weekends. The park never closes, so feel free to visit at your leisure.

Popular Birds Found At This Destination:

  • Slaty-Backed Gull
  • Bald Eagle
  • Rough-Legged Hawk
  • American White Pelican
  • Laughing Gull
  • Black-Tailed Gull
  • Blue-Winged Teal
  • Least Sandpiper
  • Double-Crested Cormorant
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Osprey
  • Song Sparrow

Hiking Trails:

Fortunately for anyone who enjoys hiking as they take in the sights and sounds of a wonderful bird watching excursion, you’re in luck because there are four great hiking trails that I’d like to tell you about today. These trails are all relatively easy and fairly short, so beginners, intermediates, and experienced hikers can all enjoy these lush and beautiful trails filled with their favorite birds.

The names and other pertinent info regarding these hiking trails include:

  • Pawnee Trail – this hiking trail is relatively easy to navigate and it will take you along a very clear and well-defined path. It’s also relatively short since it is only 1.2 miles long, which a typical person should easily finish in about a half an hour if they walk the trail from start to finish.
  • Illini Trail – this trail is also easy but a little bit more difficult because it’s a little longer than the previous trail mentioned above. It’s also a great trail to walk along because there is so much wildlife and so many birds in the area that you’ll have a great time seeing your favorite species. It’s 1.6 miles long in total, which should take the average person about 40 minutes to complete.
  • Kaskaskian Trail – this trail is easy because it’s also a clearly defined path, but it’s a little more difficult because it’s the longest trail out of the four that I am sharing with you today. In total, the full length of the trail is 2.9 miles long, which typically takes an average paced hiker around an hour and 15 minutes to finish from beginning to end.
  • Cherokee Trail Loop – just like the rest, our final trail is also very easy to navigate but it’s going to take you along the water, so you’ll see plenty of waterfowl and other astonishing birds along the way. It’s 2.1 miles long, which means you can likely complete the trail from beginning to end in roughly 55 minutes at a normal pace.

Bird Watching Destinations In Illinois: Paid Destinations

Red Hill Birding 

Are you looking for professional guides to take you through the Chicago area as you enjoy exciting birding tours? Red Hill Birding is based in Chicago, and for the past five years, they have taken many locals and out-of-towners on photography tours, birding tours, and nature tours beginning in 2016.

The organization was originally founded by Josh Engel, but during the ensuing years, he’s added other tour guides to help create beautiful customized trips and group gatherings for all to enjoy.

Their tour itineraries are designed with birding in mind, and their groups will visit many local eateries, cultural sites, and other places that are typically filled with a plentiful supply of birds. These wonderful places will provide photo opportunities and the ability to spend time with striking animals and birds located in the heart of Chicago. Animal viewing, birding, and cultural experiences are exactly what you can expect on one of these fast-paced birding trips.

Contact Info:

You can contact Red Hill Birding by filling out their contact form on this page. Send your message and either Amanda or Josh will get back to you.

Or if you prefer:

Give them a call at 224-213-2280 or email them at [email protected]

Upcoming Birding Tours

This company spans the globe with their birding tours, but they also have a very exciting upcoming fall migration and architecture tour in Chicago that they are hosting from September 23-27 in 2021.

This exciting tour costs $1650 per person, so be prepared to do some traveling if you live out of state. You’ll visit Chicago and sample the food scene, visit the Chicago Lakeshore, go on two architectural tours, and visit many of the most exciting local birding hotspots as well, so birdwatching lovers will definitely enjoy this trip too.

Give them a call or shoot them an email to sign up for the upcoming bird-watching tour being held in Chicago. It’s bound to be an exciting and pleasurable trip!

Illinois Birdwatching Clubs

The best part about birdwatching in Illinois is that this state has more than a few great places to visit when birdwatching is on your mind. And there are so many different birds in this state that it’s hard to keep track of them all, but there are definitely more than 420 different documented species, and it’s likely closer to 500 at this point.

Even better, you’ll love birdwatching in Illinois because you can do it with other like-minded people who are members of the National Audubon Society chapters within the state as well as other bird-watching clubs and organizations.

Instead of birdwatching alone, why not join one of these clubs and begin going to regular meetings, field trips, and more? You’ll certainly make great new friends, help the environment and preserve natural wildlife, and you’ll become a thriving member of an exciting birdwatching community as well.

Chicago Audubon Society

Joining the Chicago Audubon Society is equivalent to becoming a member of a birding family and community. This great organization has existed for 50 years, helping individuals like you learn about birds and they also focus on conservation.

Their overall mission is to connect more people with nature and birds through education, field trips, research, stewardship, and advocacy. If this sounds at all interesting to you, you’ll definitely benefit by becoming a member of this exciting birdwatching and conservation group.

Contact Info:

Main Office
5801-C North Pulaski Road
Chicago, IL 60646
Phone: 773-539-6793
Email: [email protected]

Office hours are Monday through Friday from 10 AM to 4 PM. The office is closed on weekends and holidays, but they regularly check phone messages during off-hours.

Past and Future Events:

  • Birds & Coffee at Jarvis Bird Sanctuary – this bird walk begins on Friday, August 27 and repeats every Friday until October 1. It starts at 7:30 AM and ends at 9:30 AM. Participants will meet in the Jarvis Bird Sanctuary parking lot, and the group will be led by Josh Engel.
  • Kickapoo Woods Birding – this Chicago Audubon Society bird watching field trip is taking place on Saturday, August 28 from 7 AM to 9 AM. You’ll meet in the Kickapoo Woods Forest Preserve parking lot. Bring a bottle of water, sunscreen, a hat, and they will supply the binoculars. All are welcome!
  • Early Migration Bird Walk – this stimulating birdwatching adventure is being held on Saturday, August 28 from 7:30 AM to 8:30 AM at the Trailside Museum of Natural History in River Forest, Illinois. John Elliott is hosting this casual walk along many hiking trails that will allow you to see plenty of birds as they begin to migrate south.

Membership Fees:

Becoming a member of the Chicago Audubon Society is a lot easier than you think. In fact, you simply have to visit this page here and follow the prompts to join the ranks of this prestigious group.

Membership levels are as follows:

  • Individual Membership – $25
  • Student Membership – $10 for students 25 and younger
  • Family Membership – $40
  • Supporting Membership – $75
  • Steward Membership – $100
  • Sponsoring Membership – $500
  • Benefactor Membership – $1000 or more

If you prefer to join the group and pay for your membership by phone, you can call 773-539-6793 to sign up over the telephone.

DuPage Birding Club

The DuPage Birding Club (DBC) was originally founded in 1985. This nationally known organization is one of the most active birding groups in the state of Illinois. With more than 400 members and counting, their mission is to promote birding to the group and the general public. They organize field trips, provide real-world education, and much more in the greater Chicago area.

Contact Info:

DuPage Birding Club
PO Box 3381
Glen Ellyn, IL 60138

Past and Future Events:

  • Greene Valley Forest Preserve – this upcoming bird walk is being held on Thursday, August 26 from 7:30 AM to 9:30 AM. You must preregister for the event by emailing Steve Constantelos at [email protected]. This leisurely trip through Greene Valley will have you walking along mulch, gravel, and grass paths, but it’s at a slow pace so it’s perfect for new and inexperienced birders.
  • Know Your Neighborhood – this bird walk is being held on Friday, August 27 from 5 PM to 7 PM and it’s hosted by Glenn Perricone. You can call Glenn at 630-687-2921 to preregister or email him at [email protected]. The group is going to walk through Salt Creek Marsh Forest Preserve and have dinner afterwards, so show up hungry and happy!
  • McDowell Grove Forest Preserve – this event is being held on Sunday, September 5 from 7:30 AM to 10 AM and pre-registration is required. Contact Denis Kania at [email protected] to let them know that you’re interested. This is an exciting birding hotspot, so be prepared to see many of your favorite winged friends up close and personal!

Membership Fees:

It’s very easy to become a member of the DuPage Birding Club. You can either fill out the online form here and pay for your membership via PayPal, or you can print your membership form and mail it along with a check to the following address:

DuPage Birding Club (make your check payable to them)
PO Box 3381
Glen Ellyn, IL 60138

Lastly, you can show up to one of their regular monthly meetings and sign up and pay for your membership in person if you prefer.

Membership levels are as follows:

  • Individual Membership – $20
  • Family Membership – $30
  • Student Membership – $10
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