My 11 Best Bird Watching Spots in Illinois You Should Try

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When people think of Illinois, they think of the city of Chicago, but the state has a lot to offer in terms of natural areas that are good for birds. It can be tricky, though, to know which spots are worth visiting if you are a bird watcher, which is why I compiled this list of best spots.

The best bird watching spots in Illinois are those with a range of habitats, such as Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge and Goose Lake Prairie State Park. Good spots for birding also include sites along Lake Michigan, such as Montrose Point and Illinois Beach State Park.

Table giving the most interesting birds you can see at each of my top 11 birding spots in Illinois:

Illinois Beach State ParkEastern Whip-poor-will and Yellow-breasted Chat
Dixon Waterfowl RefugeBald Eagle and Black Tern
Montrose PointSolitary Sandpiper and Hooded Merganser
Prairie Ridge State Natural AreaGreater Prairie-Chicken and Short-eared Owl
Robert Ridgway Grasslands Nature PreserveVirginia Rail and Sora
Carlyle LakeSabine Gull and Lesser Black-backed Gull
Chautauqua National Wildlife RefugeHudsonian Godwit and American Black Duck
Horseshoe Lake State ParkSurf Scoter and Cinnamon Teal
Crab Orchard National Wildlife RefugeCanvasback and Red-breasted Merganser
Cache River State Natural AreaBarred Owl and Mississippi Kite
Goose Lake Prairie State Natural AreaNorthern Bobwhite and American Bittern
Best Places to Bird Watch in Illinois

Read on for more details on the best bird watching places in the state of Illinois, and learn the bird species you can typically find in each of these places.

Best Bird Watching Spots in Illinois
Best Bird Watching Spots in Illinois

TIP: If you want to check out the best pair of binoculars for bird watching, we recommend a pair of waterproof and fog-proof 8 x 42 binoculars like the Celestron – Outland X 8×42 Binoculars (Amazon link).

Best Places to Bird Watch in Illinois

Illinois is a midwestern state with several state parks, which provide good habitats for birds and other wildlife. There is also a range of habitats that attract different bird species, so bird watching trips in the state are productive.

1. Illinois Beach State Park

This park is situated on the shoreline of Lake Michigan, where it extends 6.5 miles along the edge of the water. Besides beaches, the other habitats for birds that are found in this park include dunes, marshlands, and forests.

The park is very rich in birdlife. In fact, about 300 species of birds have been recorded at Illinois Beach State Park. Winter is a good time to see a range of waterfowl in the lake, including dabbling ducks and diving ducks. Spring can bring a lot of songbirds to the region.  

Some bird species that breed in the park include:

  • Eastern Whip-poor-will,
  • Red-headed Woodpecker,
  • Brewer’s Blackbird,
  • and Yellow-breasted Chat.

The Eastern Whip-poor-will is nocturnal and may be best tracked down by camping in the park.

There is a hawk count that takes place each year on the northern side of the park. This happens between September and November. 

Raptors that have been recorded passing the area include:

  • Northern Harrier,
  • Red-shouldered Hawk,
  • Broad-winged Hawk,
  • Red-tailed Hawk,
  • Sharp-shinned Hawk,
  • Cooper’s Hawk,
  • and American Kestrel.

Merlins, Peregrine Falcons, and a few Golden Eagles have been sighted before in the area.

2. Dixon Waterfowl Refuge

This 3000-acre refuge is north of Peoria. The bird species list for this area is at least 270 species, and it is known as a Wetland of International Importance. There are a couple of trails and a 30-foot observation tower that can be used by bird watchers.

The refuge consists of wetlands but also marshy areas, oak savannahs, and grasslands. This means you can see a variety of different birds in this refuge. Check the grassland areas for species such as Vesper Sparrow and Grasshopper Sparrow. 

Birds you can find in the refuge include the following species:

  • Tundra Swan,
  • Greater-fronted Swan,
  • American White Pelican,
  • American Bittern,
  • Sora,
  • and Trumpeter Swan.

Bald Eagles can be found near the water as well as Black-crowned Night Herons and Black Terns.

3. Montrose Point

This refuge is found on the shores of Lake Michigan and has more than 300 bird species present. A list of bird species found here is available.

As many as 35 shorebird species have been recorded at Montrose Point; species such as Solitary Sandpiper and Least Sandpiper occur here. Waterfowl sighted in the area include:

  • Hooded Mergansers,
  • Common Mergansers,
  • Red-throated Loons,
  • and Buffleheads.

Gull species recorded at Montrose Point include Thayer’s Gull and Iceland Gull. It is suggested that the lake be scanned from the pier when looking for gulls and waterfowl. 

Montrose Point is particularly productive in fall and spring migration. Warbler species spotted here before include:

  • Tennessee Warbler,
  • Wilson’s Warbler,
  • Orange-crowned Warbler,
  • Cape May Warbler,
  • Blackpoll Warbler,
  • and Nashville Warbler. 

There are occasionally rare birds that are seen here, such as the Painted Bunting and Groove-billed Ani. These are two species any birder would want to add to their life list.

4. Prairie Ridge State Natural Area

This area is the place to visit if you want to see grassland species. The birding is done from the road, but it is still worth it.

You can see such bird species as the Northern Bobwhite and Greater Prairie-Chicken, along with raptors like the Northern Harrier and Rough-legged Hawk. You may even see the courting behavior of the Prairie-Chickens if you visit between March and April.

Other birds you can find here include the following:

  • Short-eared Owl,
  • Grasshopper Sparrow,
  • Henslow’s Sparrow,
  • American Kestrel,
  • Loggerhead Shrike,
  • Dickcissel,
  • and Lapland Longspur. 

5. Robert Ridgway Grasslands Nature Preserve

This 40-acre nature preserve is situated close to the Prairie Ridge area and so can be visited on the same trip. The Robert Ridgway Grasslands Nature Preserve has a wetland present, providing a habitat for marsh-loving species and waterfowl.

There are trails that you can take, so you can walk around the area, which is open during the day. Two species you can find here often are the Virginia Rail and Sora.

Both are fairly secretive birds, but an early morning or late afternoon visit gives you the best shot of seeing these two birds.

6. Carlyle Lake

This is a 26,000-acre reservoir that is west of St. Louis. This area is popular for birders because, besides the lake itself, there are parks nearby that attract many different types of birds and can be used as viewing places for the lake.

On the western side of the lake, you should visit Eldon Hazlet Park. There is also South Shore Park, which is on the eastern side of the lake.

The lake is good for seeing uncommon gull species, such as the Sabine Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, and Laughing Gull. Ospreys and Bald Eagles can also be seen fishing in the lake. 

TOP TIP: Birds have been known to travel long distances. How do they find their nests when they return? And how do they recognize their own babies? Find out here and in this article.

7. Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge

The various impoundments in the refuge attract lots of waterfowl and shorebirds. Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge is designated as a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance. It is a good spot to see birds moving along the Illinois River during migration.

There is a range of habitats at this refuge, including savannah, prairie, and bottomland forest. Birds you can find in the refuge include swans: Trumpeter Swans and Tundra Swans.

You can also find waterfowl species such as:

  • American Black Duck,
  • Hooded Merganser,
  • Northern Pintail,
  • Green-winged Teal,
  • and Common Merganser.

Look out for Greater White-fronted Geese and Cackling Geese, which are often present as well.  For shorebirds, you can potentially see:

  • Baird’s Sandpiper,
  • Wilson’s Phalarope,
  • Red-necked Phalarope,
  • Hudsonian Godwit,
  • and Marbled Godwit.

In summer, you can find birds like Red-headed Woodpeckers, Dickcissels, and Yellow-billed Cuckoos. The Dickcissels will be found in the grassland areas, while the other two species will be in the trees.

8. Horseshoe Lake State Park

This park is only a short distance south of St. Louis. There is a bird species checklist you can print out and take with you on your trip here.

The lake is close to the Mississippi River, which helps attract more birds to the area. You can find many waterfowl and, when water levels drop, shorebirds.

Some of the species of birds you can find in the park include the following:

  • Mallard,
  • Surf Scoter,
  • Cinnamon Teal,
  • Little Gull,
  • Sabine Gull,
  • and Trumpeter Swan.

TIP: Knowing how to spot the birds in your yard is key to enjoying visits from your winged friends as much as possible! The best sources are trusted books, I recommend using the following (Amazon links):
National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America
National Audubon Society Birds of North America

9. Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge

This refuge is 44,000 acres in size and is located in southern Illinois. At least 276 bird species have been recorded here. There are three lakes in total, with the largest being Crab Orchard Lake. Several waterfowl occur or regularly visit this lake.

Waterfowl species to look out for on the lake include:

  • Gadwall, American Wigeon,
  • Northern Shoveler,
  • Mallard,
  • Common Goldeneye,
  • Canvasback,
  • Red-breasted Merganser,
  • and Hooded Merganser.

You can find other bird species in the refuge, including:

  • Red-shouldered Hawk,
  • Yellow-bellied Sapsucker,
  • Downy Woodpecker,
  • Red-headed Woodpecker,
  • Northern Flicker,
  • and Pileated Woodpecker.

Passerines to watch out for include:

  • Yellow Warblers,
  • Bell’s Vireos,
  • Baltimore Orioles,
  • and Field Sparrows.

The warblers, vireos, and orioles tend to be easier to find and identify on spring migration.

10. Cache River State Natural Area

This area is found in the far south of the state and close to the Ohio River, with more southern birds found here. The area consists of wetlands with cypress trees and tupelo trees. The swampy wetlands here look similar to those you find in the southern states. 

There are hiking trails on a boardwalk that passes through the swampy area. Trails to go on include Little Black Slough Trail and Heron Pond Trail. These are both recommended for bird watching. 

Bird species that breed in this refuge include:

  • Mississippi Kite,
  • Yellow-crowned Night Heron,
  • and Barred Owl.

Warbler species found in this refuge include the following:

  • Cerulean Warbler,
  • Prothonotary Warbler,
  • Northern Parula,
  • and Kentucky Warbler.

You can also spot Yellow-throated Warblers as well. Check the water for Wood Ducks and other waterfowl.

11. Goose Lake Prairie State Natural Area

This is a 2,537-acre preserve in Morris, Illinois. The refuge has prairie, wetlands, and marshland, providing habitats for a variety of birds.

You can find American Bitterns and Least Bitterns in the marshy areas, although their cryptic colors and secretive behaviors may make them a bit of a challenge to spot. Sora and Virginia Rail are also marsh birds that occur in the area.

There are also birds that nest in the area, including the Northern Bobwhite, which you would see on the ground. 

Winter birding at Goose Lake Prairie provides a chance to see Rough-legged Hawks, Bald Eagles, and Short-eared Owls. These owls are found in prairie or marsh habitats, so you should keep an eye out in the refuge if you visit in winter.

TIP: Are you looking for high-quality food for wild birds on your backyard? I recommend using Wagner’s products with the highest quality grains used in blending and made in the USA (Amazon links):
Deluxe Treat Blend Wild Bird Food
Eastern Regional Wild Bird Food
Western Regional Wild Bird Food
Midwest Regional Wild Bird Food
Southern Regional Wild Bird Food

Best Time to Bird Watch in Illinois

Generally, the best time to bird watch in the state depends on what you are wanting to see. You can see birds in any season, but migration times may be preferable if you are targeting specific birds. 

RaptorsSeptember to November
WaterfowlSpring and fall
Best Time to Bird Watch in Illinois

The Illinois State Bird

Northern Cardinal - The State Bird of Illinois
Northern Cardinal – The State Bird of Illinois

The Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis, is the state bird of Illinois. The Northern Cardinal is a widespread bird in the eastern parts of the country.

These birds are found in various habitats, including woodland and gardens. The males are bright red in color with black on their faces. They are easy to identify and have a distinctive call.

The females are brown with some black on their faces and a pink flush to their coloring. Like the males, they do also have a crest. Cardinals are seed-eating birds and, thus, have a conical-shaped beak. They commonly visit seed feeders and can be seen on the ground foraging for seeds. 

Bird Watching Laws in Illinois

Native birds are protected according to Illinois law. The species that are not protected include exotic species and invasives such as House Sparrows, European Starlings, and Pigeons.

My Favourite Equipment for Bird Watching

Bird watching is one of the least expensive hobbies out there, but you still need some equipment to get the most out of it. 

The essential equipment to start bird watching is a pair of binoculars. My preference is 8 X 42 binoculars. The number 8 is how much the magnification is, while 42 is the field of view in millimeters of the lenses.

A pair of waterproof and fog-proof 8 x 42 binoculars like the Celestron – Outland X 8×42 Binoculars on Amazon is an excellent choice for both beginners and experts. 

In time, you can choose more expensive models and also opt to buy a spotting scope like the Celestron Ultima 80 on Amazon.

These are a lot more expensive compared with binoculars though, so if you are only a beginner, start with binoculars first. A spotting scope is only helpful for birds far away, such as out on a pond or seashore.

There are a few rules or guidelines you should abide by as an ethical birder. These are listed below.

  • Do not enter private lands without prior permission from landowners.
  • Follow all the rules in refuges and reserves, including cleaning up any garbage from your campsite.
  • Do not disturb birds on nests.
  • Do not use apps and play songs to call up birds when they are hungry, tired, and breeding during spring and summer.


Illinois is one of the midwestern states which provides good birding for bird watchers. It is one of the richest states in terms of birdlife, with more than 400 species recorded.

You can see many migrants at parks along Lake Michigan, but there are also places with swampland, marshes, prairie, and forests. You can’t go wrong adding Illinois to your list of best birdwatching states.

TIP: If you want to check out the best pair of binoculars for bird watching, we recommend a pair of waterproof and fog-proof 8 x 42 binoculars like the Celestron – Outland X 8×42 Binoculars (Amazon link).

Rae Osborn

Rae Osborn is an avid bird watcher and holds a doctorate in Biology. Her interests in birds began as a child growing up in South Africa. She has continued to study birds and has bird watched in the United States and South Africa.

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