CHICAGO – Chicago’s preeminent plovers are together again, settling in for their third summer of saving their species at Montrose Beach along the Lake Michigan coast.
Monty and Rose, the endangered Great Lakes piping plovers who became the first pair to nest successfully in Chicago in decades, collectively traveled more than 2,000 miles to make it back to Chicago just one day apart.
Shortly before sunset Monday, as the edge of Lake Michigan reflected an amber sky, one of the plovers touched down along the shore by the dunes habitat and proceeded to dash past cracked shells and a watermelon White Claw can, pausing here and there to plunge its beak into the sand or sound a piercing cheep. The bird flew over to the pier and, in a blink, was gone again.
Rose was first seen Sunday morning at the beach, and as word of the return spread, birders arrived with big cameras and growing excitement. Many were alerted by Mark Kolasa, who was out birding at Montrose, like most days, when he second-guessed what he saw.
“I was just walking along the beach, not really expecting to see a plover because it’s maybe a little bit early yet,” Kolasa said. “She was so much smaller than I remembered.”
The scramble began to confirm the bird based off its unique leg bands.
“There was a lot of excitement, a lot of back and forth,” Kolasa said. “Get someone out there with a scope, now!”
Rose flew around, dodging some gulls, Kolasa said. But his favorite part was when she started calling out. “I was imagining she was like, ‘Where are you, Monty?’”
On Monday afternoon, another plover arrived at the beach that appeared to be Monty. By Tuesday morning, Monty’s banding combination was confirmed.
Monty and Rose darted around their old haunts at Montrose, at times in the protected area and at others right in the middle of open beach, withstanding wind that sent sand flying and masks askew.
Patricia O’Donnell, a monitor for the plovers for the last two years, was out at the beach again Monday after visiting Rose on Sunday. “I personally really enjoy watching the birds because it takes me outside myself,” O’Donnell said.
On Monday, she learned both of the birds were back.
“It’s a comeback story because they went way down in population and then they came back. It’s a great story of conservation,” O’Donnell said. “But I got to tell you — it’s a love story.”
O’Donnell has questioned the anthropomorphizing of the wild animals. But, she said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a Pixar film at some point.
“Another year, another breeding season,” O’Donnell added. “What drama will unfold? There’s always drama around them.”
Last summer, the birds arrived about a week later, on the cusp of May. Experienced males tend to show up first, but as evidenced by Monty and Rose, that’s not always the case.
“We know that if they’re hustling, they can get there in a couple days,” said Francie Cuthbert, a leader of the plover recovery effort and a professor in the Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology at the University of Minnesota. “Each time the pair shows up it’s a miracle.”
Rose’s arrival coincided with a “burst” of plover activity over the weekend, Cuthbert said. About 30% of last year’s adult Great Lakes plovers have returned, most to Michigan. The last season’s young tend to be slower.
“This is their first return trip, so you can assume they may be making some wrong turns along the way, so to speak,” Cuthbert said.
Monty and Rose first met on a Waukegan beach when they were only a few months old. They attempted to nest in Waukegan in 2018, without success, but in 2019, they ended up fledging two chicks on Montrose. Last summer, they fledged three: Nish, Hazel and Esperanza.
In the last two years, Monty and Rose’s followers have found inspiration in their small-but-mightiness. Deflated birders missed spending their days watching the plovers last summer but hoped an empty beach might mean a more peaceful stay.
Drama from the first Montrose summer — a failed clutch of eggs, July Fourth fireworks, a species-saving effort pitted against an EDM music festival on the beach — largely disappeared last year. The birds were on their own, the challenges more natural: a more than 400-foot journey through the dunes to secure safer ground for the chicks, eating enough from the “primordial soup” in a flooded area of the beach to ensure a successful migration.
Monty and Rose were sighted this winter in Texas and Florida, respectively. The chicks survived the journey south but have not yet been confirmed as making it back north to summer grounds.
“For all three of those chicks to show up would be pretty exceptional,” Cuthbert said. “But that’s what’s going to be really interesting — if any of the Chicago chicks from last year do return, survive, where will they go? Where will they end up? Will they return and be in the general Chicago area or will they show up in Michigan?”
This summer, people will be back on the beach. But lake levels are lowering, offering more habitat along the coast.
“We’re getting reports from a number of places about really great habitat that’s been exposed,” Cuthbert said.
The number of wild fledglings was down last year, but Jillian Farkas, the Great Lakes piping plover recovery coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said more available habitat is reason for hope.
“We’re keeping our fingers crossed,” Farkas said. “As much as I would love to see a constant increase, just exponentially, that would be fantastic, but that’s not how nature always works. We’re expecting the ups and downs, but we’re slowly but surely increasing. So I’m very optimistic about this year, and we’ll all come together to address challenges.”
Earlier this month, the Chicago Park District signed off on a habitat expansion for the birds, adding about 3 acres to the existing natural area at Montrose, where stewards have worked for years to foster biodiversity.
Plovers continue to face threats from habitat loss, humans and severe storms. And botulism outbreaks remain a threat, especially in warming water. So another successful mating season for Monty and Rose could mean a lot for Great Lakes plovers, once down to about a dozen nesting pairs.
“Think about how many people don’t get to witness this bird,” Farkas said. “And I know it’s not a flashy, beautiful indigo bunting shorebird. But it’s pretty unique.”
Last season, 64 pairs of piping plovers nested along the Great Lakes, a slight drop from the previous year. By the end of May, a clearer picture of this season’s nesting pairs should emerge.
On average, plovers can live about five or six years, Cuthbert said. But some live longer — the record is 16 years.
With any luck, Monty and Rose’s Chicago story will be more than a trilogy.
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