WILD CHICAGO: A GUIDE

It’s been a while hasn’t it? Between a trip to Chicago, getting home and finishing off papers, and most recently two weeks at Kew on a plant taxonomy course, the blog has had to take a brief hiatus. Rest assured though, I’m back in Manchester for the next month or so and looking forward to posting more regularly. Speaking of Chicago, I’ve put together a little city guide to finding the wild places amongst the skyscrapers…


CHICAGO: 5 WILD PLACES

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OK- nobody comes to Chicago for its natural splendours. It’s about the architecture, the art institute, Wrigley Field and the food-I had my first reuben when I was there in August, and it was pinnacle of sandwich excellence. However, if, like me, you start getting a bit jittery if you don’t see an animal for a while, here are my top five places to go to get a little dose of wildness between the bouts of city exploration. I apologise if they’re a bit obvious- if you know of anywhere else to add to the list I would love to hear about it.

Being such a seasonal city (I have had my water bottle freeze in my rucksack while walking the 20 mins to the train station in January, and experienced such heat during the summer that I very rapidly started resembling this clock) the character of each recommendation will change throughout the year. Winter is really time for the birds to shine, whereas in summer a chorus of cicadas thickens the evening air.

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NATURE BOARDWALK, LINCOLN PARK

A new discovery for me on this trip, maybe because it’s at its absolute best in the summer. The zoo transformed Lincoln park’s 19th century pond into a thriving wetland, with multiple habitats and a multitude of nectar rich plants. On a sunny day in late summer the place was dripping in bees, beetles, wasps and butterflies. It has a colony of night herons and painted turtles can be regularly seen basking on the rocks. It was so exciting to see a project where the usual bare borders of ornamental ponds had been turned into something so choc-full of life. I saw my first monarch butterfly here, all under the gaze of the Chicago skyline and within walking distance of the magnificent mile. It is particularly beautiful on an evening, where the cicadas have reached full volume and the heat of the day is subsiding. Bliss.

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LINCOLN PARK ZOO

The most obvious of the lot, but Lincoln Park Zoo is free, and has a few species which I had never seen before. LPZ gave me my first views of Fennec foxes, naked mole rats, dikkops and sand cats. When I went in winter, their waterfowl pond was full to the brim with wild mallards. They also have an endangered species carousel where instead of the horses there’s different carved animals, including a Malayan tapir. Enough said.

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CHICAGO BOTANIC GARDENS

In the winter, it’s a brilliant place for waxwings, cardinals and American robins which all congregate around the berries. On one of our visits, it also gave me one of my most precious wildlife sightings- a beautiful red tailed hawk, who landed in a tree so close to us that she filled the frame of my 300mm lens. She was perched there for a breathless 10 minutes, while me and my friends exchanged incredulous glances. You couldn’t wipe the grin off my face for hours afterwards. They also do a lot of cool science and conservation work, restoring ravines, looking at the ecosystem services provided by green roofs, and looking at the genetic diversity of endangered plants in the wild. So you can enjoy the warm glow when you pay the entrance fee.

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NED BROWN FOREST PRESERVE

Unlike the above four, this one is out in the suburbs. Sadly I have no idea how you’d get to it using public transport, but if you have a car, GO GO GO! White-tailed deer, woodpeckers, geese, and a pasture that’s home to the park’s small herd of elk. I wish I had seen this place in the summer, when there’s the chance of seeing garter snakes and salamanders.

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THE FIELD MUSEUM

One of the greats. Amongst its circa 30 million biological, geological, and cultural specimens, the Field Museum has Sue, the most complete T-rex skeleton ever found (Dinosaur 13 is a great film about her discovery and the controversy surrounding it- last time I checked you could get it on UK Netflix). Their ancient life section is incredible- featuring ancient sharks, cave bears, Irish elk, ceratopsians, stegosaurs, and my all-time favourite dinosaur, parasaurolophus. They have letters by written by Audobon (author of the iconic Birds of America), a gallery about the conservation work they do, and a giant model of a mole cricket. It’s difficult to get me to shut up about how great the Field Museum is- I’ll just say that one day isn’t enough to see it all.

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