Monty and Rose, two small shorebirds called piping plovers, found their way to Montrose Beach Dunes in Chicago in 2019 as a couple, and bred on the beach for three summers.
They were the first of these critically endangered plovers to nest at Montrose Beach Dunes in at least seven decades. Just a few decades ago, the number of these Great Lakes piping plovers dropped to 13 pairs. In 2021, the number was up to 74 breeding 70 pairs, but the number varies by year.
What drew Monty and Rose to Montrose?
Look at a map of the Chicago shoreline. Up to Waukegan Beach, only one “point” of land juts out to the east into Lake Michigan. This point was part of landfill that in the late 1920s enlarged Lincoln Park and created DuSable Lake Shore Drive.
During World War II, the point was taken over by the military, which built a Nike missile site in the 1950s. A row of non-native honeysuckle bushes was planted to disguise the structures. To a tired migrating bird, having flown all night, the shrubs must have looked like a welcome sanctuary for rest and food.
Birds came. Birders came. The shrubs became known as “the Magic Hedge.” The location became an annual spring and fall attraction for birds and birders. The Chicago Park District has expanded and improved it as the Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary.
Adjacent to the bird sanctuary is Montrose Beach Dunes Natural Area. This generous-sized beach is also human-made. Natural forces of the wind and the waves have increased its size and shaped the sand into a foredune and a panne (a rare natural wet area). Volunteers have planted native species and worked to keep it free of invasives. The Chicago Park District has expanded this area too. The hope was to create an appealing place for endangered piping plovers to nest, but would it ever happen?
When Monty and Rose arrived, it was a dream come true!
Monty and Rose both hatched in 2017 in Michigan. They met on Waukegan Beach in 2017, returned in 2018 and nested, but the attempt failed. They flew to Montrose Beach and spent the rest of the summer of 2018 there. They must have scoped it out and found it suitable.
In 2019, they returned to Montrose and nested, but early in the season perhaps they were having second thoughts. They went back and forth between Waukegan and Montrose before settling down to raise chicks.
Monty and Rose and eventually their nest, eggs and young needed to be monitored continuously, as they were always endangered by gulls and other beach predators.
Enter Evanston resident Tamima Itani, members of other bird clubs and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Itani, a native of Lebanon who studied at the American University of Beirut, has a doctorate in biomedical engineering from Northwestern University and a 25-plus year career in the medical device industry. In an exquisite example of “you never know where life is going to lead you,” she became the person who set up the monitoring schedule and became a major spokesperson for the plovers. How did that happen?
Itani was a new birder in 2017, having become enchanted by birds during a trip to South Africa and nearby countries to see the big animals – the lions and elephants and zebras and other African icons. With her small camera, she found herself capturing images of birds of species unknown to her. Returning to Evanston and needing to know more, she reached out to Evanston resident and bird expert Josh Engel to help identify the birds in her photos. She bought a larger camera, joined birding organizations and began visiting Montrose.
In 2017, Itani had never heard of a piping plover. A birder friend mentioned that two piping plovers had turned up in Waukegan and she went to see them. They were Monty and Rose, as yet unnamed.
In 2019, the two piping plovers returned to Montrose to set up serious housekeeping. Itani had been visiting Montose regularly to learn the local and migrating birds. On the evening of June 3, Itani and others witnessed the elaborate courtship dance of the male and then watched as he began scraping nests. This was year one, and there was no system of monitoring. Tired of referring to the two plovers by the colors and numbers on their legs, Itani named them Monty and Rose in recognition of their iconic beach. A system of two-hour shifts was devised on the fly. The nest was caged for protection from predators, but the adults were free to roam.
By year two, 2020, things had changed. The preceding years’ experience led to formal two-hour monitoring shifts. COVID-19 had limited the number of people allowed at Montrose but hadn’t eliminated prowling and flying animal predators. Because of limits on visitors, out of necessity Itani became the piping plover spokesperson to greater Chicago, providing information on the daily lives of the birds.
Nature knows no borders, birds know no boundaries. Connecting the wintering and breeding grounds of birds is essential. The experience of wintering habitats has a huge effect on birds’ ability to migrate and breed, something we in Chicago don’t think about as we delight in seeing migrants in May.
During the winter of 2021-22, Itani visited naturalists on the wintering grounds of the plovers. Monty wintered on an urbanized beach in Texas; he always seemed comfortable around people. Rose wintered on an uninhabited island in Florida; she was shy. Monty and Rose provided connections between naturalists in the multiple states through which the plovers wintered and migrated.
Monty and Rose fostered connections between people despite differences in professions, ages and backgrounds. The birds’ value goes well beyond nesting at an iconic Chicago beach: They showed the impact of birds can never be underestimated.
The average lifespan of a Piping Plover is five years. Monty arrived back at Montrose beach on April 21, 2022. Rose never returned. Another female arrived, spent a few days, and left. On May 13, Monty showed signs of distress and died. A necropsy revealed that Monty died of a fungal infection that led to laryngitis, which restricted his ability to breathe.
Although the ending was sad, there is a sign of hope: One of the 2021 offspring, Imani, has returned to his natal ground at Montrose. Perhaps he will find a mate and breed? Itani and the others in the Piping Plover community will be watching.
Itani found time to write two books about the plovers. She provides a fuller account of their lives at Montrose in Monty and Rose Nest at Montrose and Monty and Rose Return to Montrose. Both books are available at this site.
Proceeds from sales of the book are donated to the University of Minnesota Research Foundation to fund research on the fate of captive piping plover chicks and to learn more information about their wintering grounds.
Several movies about the two birds are also available here. (The movies have a rental or purchase cost, but you can also watch the promos to see the two plovers on the beach.)
Wonderful article, terrific writing, hopeful ending. Thank you, Libby.
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