Montrose Beach Dunes Overview
Recreational uses: Chicago Park District parkland around Montrose Harbor is enjoyed by a large number of citizens, for uses such as birdwatching, plant study, nature photography, fishing, kayaking, sailing, volleyball, sunbathing, walking, and picnicking, to name a few. Montrose Beach Dunes enhance the recreational opportunities available to Chicago’s citizens. Although the site is best suited to more passive forms of recreation, it nicely complements the more active uses the adjoining areas receive. Additionally, Montrose Beach Dunes provides a fantastic “living classroom” for formal or informal study of native flora, fauna, and geology of the Lake Michigan dunes ecosystem.
Geologic and ecologic history of the area: When the last glaciers began their retreat approximately 15,000 years ago, Lake Michigan’s predecessor, the much larger Lake Chicago, was formed, which later became Lake Michigan as we know it today. Beginning about 8,000 years ago, lake levels slowly fell as new channels opened up to drain the lake, and remnant beach ridges are still very much apparent in the geology of the region. As the lake levels dropped, wind carried the sand and began to shape dunes. Much of the Lake Michigan’s beach sand is comprised of tiny particles transported and deposited by the last glacier from elsewhere, such as basalt, gabbro, and granite from Canadian Shield origin and sandstone and dolomite from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Due to prevailing northwesterly winds, Illinois Lake Michigan dunes are generally much smaller (maximum of 12 feet) than those in Indiana or Michigan. Generally, dunes run parallel to the lakeshore, with interdunal wetlands, pannes, in between, producing the famous “dune and swale” habitat which can be readily viewed at Illinois Beach State Park in Lake County, Illinois. In the late 1890’s scientist Henry Cowles studied ecological succession involving natural changes in plant communities over time, at nearby Indiana dunes complexes; much of his work is still very much applicable to Montrose Beach Dunes and other Great Lakes dunal systems today.
Recent history of the area: Recreational areas at Montrose Beach Dunes were first created in the 1930’s as part of the Lincoln Park expansion from the South. In the early 1990’s, lowered lake levels allowed a small amount of vegetation to colonize the beach area closest to the fishing pier, including one state threatened element (Sea Rocket) which was first noticed in 1993. Formation of the low dunes started in this period as well. In 2000, the Chicago Park District stopped “grooming” a small area of beach, further encouraging spontaneous growth of beach, wetland, and dune plant species, possibly germinated from the seed bank itself, and from seeds carried by the wind or waves to the site. Marram Grass is particularly important in stabilization of these dunes; the underground rhizomes of this grass rapidly grow horizontally, while shoots quickly grow upwards, to keep pace with shifting sands to prevent the grass from being completely buried. Due to its rapid growth and ability to sprout roots from a sand-buried trunk, Eastern Cottonwood is another important dune stabilizer, although in small natural areas such as Montrose Beach Dunes it can become overly aggressive and crowd out higher quality species. Increased vegetation traps additional organic material, providing further habitat for plants and a more complex vegetational pattern to occur. Since that time, judicious additions of native species have been made by natural area managers, including the Illinois State-threatened forb Pitcher’s Thistle (Cirsium pitcheri), which is also federally threatened, and the State endangered shrub Kalm’s St. John’s Wort (Hypericum kalmianum), both endemic Great Lakes coastal species. Recently native Black Oak saplings were planted to simulate a Black Oak Savanna plant community. Montrose Beach Dunes is currently listed as an Illinois Natural Area Inventory site. Over 200 volunteer and adventives plant species have been recorded from Montrose Beach Dunes, including eight State listed elements.
Birds found at Montrose Beach Dunes: Over 150 species of birds have been seen at Montrose Beach Dunes in recent years. They are attracted by the organic matter which collects on the shore, as well as by the tremendous number of insects which are themselves attracted by the diversity of the plant community. Known nesting species include Rough-winged Swallow, Red-winged Blackbird, Song Sparrow, Killdeer, and Spotted Sandpiper. The federally endangered Piping Plover is seen regularly during migration in Spring and late Summer. Shorebirds, such as Whimbrels, Avocets, and Willets, are often found in abundance during migration. The site is a favorite of hardier birdwatchers for unusual gulls (such as Thayer’s Gull and Glaucous Gull), Snow Buntings, Lapland Longspurs, and various waterfowl (including several species each of scoters and mergansers) at prime times during the colder months from October through March. The nearby Montrose Point bird sanctuary, with its famous “Magic Hedge”, provides abundant food cover for migrating passerines including warblers and sparrows during Spring and Fall migrations. The National Audubon Society named Montrose Beach Dunes an Important Bird Area in 2007. Birders from all over the United States have visited Montrose Point and Dunes to enjoy the myriad of species that can be found there, especially during Spring and Fall migrations.
Management activities: Just because Montrose Beach Dunes is a “natural area” does not mean that it could be left alone from a management standpoint. Removal of non-native species (such as Common Reed, Purple Loosestrife, and Black Meddick) as well as control of overly aggressive natives (Sandbar Willow and Eastern Cottonwood) is accomplished through weeding, cutting, and herbiciding. While volunteers do much of the weeding and cutting, a professional contractor performs herbiciding and other more technical work. Volunteers monitor and make reports on conservative plant species, especially those which are Illinois State listed as endangered or threatened. Other volunteers and scientists study birds, dragonflies, butterflies and other insects, and small mammals that are found here.
New volunteers at Montrose Beach Dunes are always welcome! If you are interested in volunteering, contact Jerome Scott at the Chicago Park District:
Plant communities with representative species found at Montrose Beach Dunes:
▪ Ammophila breviligulata - Marram Grass (Illinois State endangered)
Foredunes: Low sand dunes, undergoing stabilization through colonizing vegetation; at Montrose Beach Dunes, the furthest community from the lake.
▪ Calamovilfa longifolia var. magna - Sand reed Grass
▪ Chamaesyce polygonifolia - Seaside Spurge (Illinois State endangered)
▪ Cyperus schweinitzii - Rough Sand Sedge
▪ Elymus canadensis - Canada Rye Grass
▪ Monarda punctata - Horsemint
▪ Populus deltoides - Eastern Cottonwood
▪ Schizachyrium scoparium - Little Bluestem Grass
Panne: Interdunal wetland found on the shores of the Great Lakes, typically having a neutral to alkaline pH. This habitat is becoming increasingly rare as the Great Lakes shoreline become developed. Various rushes and sedges are abundant.
▪ Eleocharis erythropoda - Red-rooted Spikerush
▪ Juncus balticus var. littoralis - Baltic Rush
▪ Lycopus asper - Rough Water Horehound
▪ Potentilla anserina - Silverweed
▪ Salix amygdaloides - Peach-leaved willow
▪ Scirpus atrovirens - Dark green rush
▪ Scirpus pungens - Chairmaker’s Rush
▪ Scirpus validus var. creber - Soft-stemmed Bulrush
▪ Solidago graminifolia var. nuttallii - Hairy Grass-leaved Goldenrod
▪ Verbena hastata - Marsh Vervain
Open sand beach: The beach lying the closest to Lake Michigan. Colonizer plant species are the first to germinate and grow above the beach water line.
▪ Cakile edentula var. lacustris - Beach Rocket (Illinois State threatened)
▪ Corispermum hyssopifolium - Bugseed
▪ Cycloloma atriplicifolium - Winged Pigweed
▪ Oenothera biennis - Common Evening Primrose
▪ Populus deltoides - Eastern Cottonwood
▪ Salix interior - Sandbar Willow
▪ Xanthium strumarium - Cocklebur