Lake Michigan

The land along the lake is quite new, and not at all settled. Waves easily chew through it, for example. The rate at which the shore is pushed back varies with water levels, storms, and the configuration of the shore, but has averaged about a foot a year over recent decades.

The state endangered bearberry persists on the foredunes of Lake Michigan.

The ecological conditions immediately adjacent to a great lake are, by Illinois standards, peculiar. Many plant species, indeed whole plant communities, that are rare or don’t exist elsewhere in the state can be found along the remnant bluffs, beaches, and fore­dunes of the original Lake Michigan shore. Common juniper and white cedar, uncommon shrubs in Illinois, are found on the eroding bluffs in the region. Foredunes—the sandy terrain slightly removed from the water’s edge that is less disturbed by waves—harbor many plant species listed as threatened or endangered by the state, including Canadian buffalo-berry, bearberry, beach pea, and sand-dune willow.
In Lake County the dunes that line the lake support no fewer than 16 natural communities. As many as 60 T&E plant and animal species occupy a spectrum of habitats from dune faces to ponds to savanna. In the 1970s a new species of aquatic beetle was found here in the Dead River, a stubby stream whose outlet to the lake is usually blocked by sandbars and so spends most of its life as an elongated pond.
The list of bird species that have been noted along Illinois’s Lake Michigan shoreline is longer and more extensive than in any other area of its size in Illinois. If you count the rare species that occasionally stray or are blown into the area, it is longer—for an area its size—than all but a few places anywhere else in the interior U.S. One reason is the “Magic Hedge,” a 150-yard plant screen that surrounded a 1950s-era missile installation that stood on Montrose Point on Chicago’s north side until 1970. The jumble of shrubs and trees on the point offer a rare spot in which migrating birds can find shelter, rest, and food. In season, experienced birders can spot hundreds of species in a single day, from tiny warblers to falcons. In spring of 2002 the Chicago Park District further enhanced Montrose Point as a migratory bird haven by planting bur oaks, jack pines, plum, and hawthorn trees. Similar improvements have been made elsewhere on the lakefront, at Lincoln Park Bird Sanctuary, South Shore Cultural Center, and Wooded Island in Jackson Park.

Birders flock to the Lake Michigan shoreline during bird migration to view hundreds of species, including great egrets (left)

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