The plover is a sight to behold on a sandy coast, if you can spot it. Its delicate 7-inch bezel is small even within the shorebird family, and its soft feathers match the sand it nests on. Unfortunately, the bird’s favorite breeding sites have come under pressure around the sandbanks of the Great Plains, the Atlantic coast, and the shores of the Great Lakes. This has led to coastal populations being listed as threatened, while inland populations are considered endangered.
This species’ struggle against human activity and floods makes the story of Monty and Rose, a famous couple of northern Chicago plovers, much more important. After nesting and summers on Lake Michigan for three summers, Monty unexpectedly died this May from a fungal respiratory infection. Rose also hasn’t been seen since she flew to Florida last winter. However, their story continued to resonate nationally in birding circles and in the hearts of the locals.
Monty and Rose found their home on Montrose Beach in Chicago in 2019 after not mating in a suburban parking lot. Their choice of properties was unlikely for several reasons. Before them, no plover had built a nest in Chicago in more than 70 years. When dedicated conservation efforts began in the 1980s, only 11 to 14 bird pairs even lived on the Great Lakes, all in the state of Michigan. (Today, there are about 70 in all five lakes.) Additionally, Montrose Beach is a popular urban beach for swimmers, kayakers, volleyball players, and even a music festival planned for 2019 that has been canceled out of concern for Monty and Rose.
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Sarah Saunders, a quantitative ecologist with the National Audubon Society who has worked with peppermint plovers since 2010, says the birds could breed in high-traffic areas for a number of reasons. They typically begin nest building in mid-April before the summer weather attracts swimmers. Once their eggs have been laid and hatched, large crowds of people keep predators such as hawks at bay. “There is no shortage of predators that will chase the plover,” says Saunders. “And if we don’t locate a nest and exclude ourselves, many of those predators will chase the eggs.”
With their proximity to Chicagoans, the mating pair generated a buzz in the city almost upon arrival. Bob Dolgan, a local filmmaker, produced a documentary about the Cook County couple after recording the start of Monty’s mating behavior.
“It was just a little disconcerting to me that these birds will attempt to nest there on the beach, which is probably the busiest in Chicago,” Dolgan says. “That was really how it started. From there the story simply grew out of all proportion. “
Both Dolgan and Saunders agree that the outpouring of support in Chicago was incredible to see. Each plover nest across the Great Lakes is monitored by a network of volunteers and employees from Audubon companies, state natural resources departments, US Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Birds Canada, universities, and more. Saunders describes the effort to protect the nests as “incredible,” with plover friends following the chicks, educating bathers, and installing fences to deter predators. Dolgan says there was no shortage of Chicagoans ready to spend their days watching over Monty and Rose.
“This is one of the surprising things to me, as someone has been involved in many causes and nonprofit organizations over the years,” he adds. “It’s been so exciting for so many people it’s never been hard to find volunteers, which I think says a lot about the Chicago conservation community.”
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Enthusiasm has supported the bird pair through many successful breeding seasons. The birds faced a storm with gusty winds in June 2019 and years of unpredictable water levels in Lake Michigan. However, Saunders remembers that despite any threats (including when volunteers put identification tags on chicks), Monty would always defend his family. “He was clearly very devoted,” he says.
Though Monty and Rose are no longer around, Saunders was moved by Chicago’s camaraderie and support for birds. He says that in his travels, people in distant countries know the names of the plovers and now understand the importance of the species. “They genetically contributed to the progeny of the population, who as a scientist, [is] something we’d like to see, ”he observes. “But that’s also what they have done in terms of raising awareness and educating people. And even if they’re gone, that doesn’t mean other future plovers won’t find Montrose Beach and nest there again.
Compared to when Monty and Rose first arrived on the shores of Lake Michigan, the plovers in the area now have a dedicated and educated fan base. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a multi-agency protection plan for the region, has helped feed the plover population from less than a dozen annual mating pairs up to 75. The USFWS wants to reach 150 breeding pairs.
As dozens of small plovers rush to the beaches, Saunders says people become more excited and knowledgeable about the species. “This will only help continue their recovery and help us reach the federal goal over time,” he says. Monty and Rose’s story helped fuel what Saunders calls “plover fever,” which is still spreading through documentaries, T-shirts and giveaways from the gigantic baby bird community.