I love Northerly Island.

Northerly Island is actually a peninsula, created as part of the Burnham Plan of Chicago. You can reach it by following the road past the sculpture garden outside of Adler Planetarium. It was once the site of Meigs Field, but the second Mayor Daley controversially sent bulldozers to the runways of that small airport in 2003. Some claim it was a horrible abuse of power. Others claim it was a good security move. Aviation aficionados miss having a lakefront airport; 99 Percenters decry having a whole peninsula dedicated for wealthy executives to fly their private planes to work. In any case, there is no airport there now.

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The foaming at the mouth that occurs when some Chicagoans discuss Meigs Field evokes this promotional image for the film “Cujo.”

Instead, there is a gorgeous expanse of restored prairie and bird habitat, along with a field house where you can learn about nature, and an outpost of Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation focusing on helping migrating birds who strike the windows of downtown skyscrapers. The Charter One Pavilion, a concert venue now slated for expansion, will host bands like Phish and Ben Folds Five this summer.

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A view from the “island” courtesy of the Chicago Park District.

In the summer, 12th Street Beach is one of the less crowded beaches in the city because of its secluded location. There is open water swimming here, rather than the limited-depth swimming at other beaches. You can also enjoy public restrooms that are a bit cleaner than at some other beaches and skip long lines at the concession stand. There is typically only one  lifeguard, so be aware of your little swimmers. Amusingly, there is no 12th Street here (it’s now called Roosevelt Road).

In spring and fall, this is an excellent place to birdwatch. In particular, many Purple Martins nest here, and you may see some warblers passing through who are only in the Chicago area for a few weeks or even days per year.

In the winter, Northerly Island has hosted dog sled demonstrations and the Polar Adventure Days.  You can rent snowshoes or cross country skis in snowy weather, as well.

There is also talk of building an artificial reef off the shore here, providing habitat for struggling Lake Michigan fish. This is just one of many ecology-minded projects under discussion for Northerly Island, keeping true to Burnham’s motto, “Make no small plans.” I, for one, am eager to see what actually comes to fruition.

I love Chicago’s wild parrots (and how much Chicagoans love them, too).

While Chicago isn’t the only American city with wild parrots, or even wild Quaker parrots, we may be the only city who has fought so long and so hard for them. The now-extinct Carolina Parakeet, driven out of existence by hunting and habitat loss, cannot ever truly be replaced, but these birds are trying to do it. They have been nesting in Hyde Park and elsewhere in the Chicago area since at least the 1970’s.

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Pretty bird! Source: Windy City Parrot

It’s true not everybody loves them, but then again, there are a lot of misconceptions–that their nests start fires (only one record exists of that happening here), that they destroy crops (nobody has caught them at it yet), or that they only eat bird seed and therefore deprive native species of access to feeders (anyone who watches them will see them eat a variety of foods). On the other hand, they have quite a fan club.

Famously, former Mayor Harold Washington called them good luck. There are many legends about his affection for and protection of these parrots, but few can be verified beyond a few positive comments and the fact that they did live near his home. Shortly after the end of his administration, Chicagoans went to court to protect the birds and launched citizen campaigns to prevent their removal or destruction. Later, the Greater Chicago Caged Bird Club started a project to take in and care for any baby birds that utilities companies found in nests they destroyed on power lines, or that were otherwise found in need of help. Businesses and citizens in the community of Hyde Park rushed to aid the birds when a storm toppled a tree containing one of their large nests. Most people I’ve met who live there, or did in the past, have stories to tell about these little green parrots.

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One of their less obvious nests. Source: Chicago Wilderness.

I myself have visited parks and fields in Hyde Park to watch the birds feed, play, and do battle with crows and pigeons. I’ve also spotted a few at a miniature golf course in Des Plaines. They are fascinating little creatures who apparently love eating dandelions. If you’re not in the area and want to have a look at these colorful characters, check out Chicago Man on Flickr. Heck, check him out anyways–he has tons of great urban landscapes, too.