Chicago, IL

A happy update on Chicago's piping plovers at Montrose Beach

Jennifer Geer

Success! In a victory for bird lovers, the Chicago Park District is extending a protected area on Montrose Beach for endangered piping plovers.

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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I wrote about Monty and Rose, a pair of mated piping plovers about a month ago when the fate of their nesting site was uncertain. These endangered little birds have nested along the shores of Lake Michigan and raised chicks there since the summer of 2019.

Dunes expansion

The park district announced earlier this month they are expanding the current 12.8-acre habitat by an additional 3.1 acres.

“We are thrilled to announce the expansion of the Montrose Natural Area,” said Chicago Park District General Superintendent and CEO Michael Kelly in a statement. “This treasured space, which attracts native and migratory birds, including the endangered Piping Plover and various plants, brings nature and people together in a unique way.”

Monty and Rose

Last summer, two little plovers, nicknamed Monty and Rose, raised three chicks, Nish, Hazel, and Esperanza on the shores of Lake Michigan. The birds were given identifying leg bands and have since been spotted in Florida, Georgia, and Texas. Monty and Rose are expected to return to their usual nesting site at Montrose Beach this year, and it's possible their offspring may nest nearby along the shore.

These birds have created a stir among Chicagoans. They caused a music festival to be relocated in 2019. In 2020 with beach closures due to Covid restrictions, they pretty much had the place to themselves. But this year, conservationists were worried human activity on the nearby beach could endanger their nesting site and foraging habits.

The bird's nest was right next to a popular spot on the beach for sand volleyball. Conservationists and bird enthusiasts had requested the Chicago Park District relocate the volleyball courts and extend the dunes to give the birds more space to forage and help keep their nests protected from human activity.

Why are two little birds causing such a fuss?

Monty and Rose are Great Lakes Piping Plovers, and there are only about 70 pairs in the entire world. At the height of their population, there were around 800, but this was brought down to as low as 13 pairs in 1990.

When the Chicago Park District began to leave an area of the beach alone in 2001, it grew vegetation that hadn't been seen along the lake for decades. A rare wetland habitat called panne, which is only found in the Great Lakes region, began to return to the shore. And with the return of the vegetation came Monty and Rose.

Piping plovers were almost killed off entirely by settlers that used their feathers for hats. That, in combination with the destruction of the dunes for beach activities, nearly led to their extinction.

Thanks to volunteers

The success of their return is due mainly to the many government groups and private volunteers that have spent time working for their protection. Volunteers have monitored the plovers and kept watch over their nesting site. Recently, volunteers from the Shedd Aquarium, as part of their Action Days program spent a weekend cleaning up trash and litter from the beach that could be hazardous to wildlife.

Edward Warden, the conservation stewardship coordinator for the Shedd Aquarium, told Chicago's ABC7 News about the cleanup, "We're talking about hundreds of other different bird species that use this site, [and] several different species of plants. Many of those endangered, and certainly our own drinking water here in Lake Michigan."

If you want to keep up with Monty and Rose, you can check out their Twitter profiles @MontyPlover and @RosePlover.

If you'd like to get involved yourself, you can learn more about the Shedd Aquarium's Action Days or sign up to volunteer here. You can also learn more about the Great Lakes Piping Plovers and ways to help on their website.

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