By Christine Williamson

Piping Plover volunteer monitors, bird group partners and federal and local wildlife officials were honored at a celebration on Oct. 17 for their work in keeping the Piping Plover family safe on Montrose Beach this summer.

The jam-packed gallery of the Peggy Notebaert Museum was buzzing with happiness as many plover monitors met each other for first time and swapped war stories from the beach, fueled by food and drink generously donated by the museum.

More than 100 people attended the event, including representatives from Illinois birding groups Audubon Great Lakes, Chicago Audubon Society (CAS), Chicago Ornithological Society (COS) and Illinois Ornithological Society (IOS) which collaborated to set up the monitor network to keep Monty, Rose and their chicks safe.

Dr. Francesca Cuthbert, professor at University of Minnesota and Coordinator of the Great Lakes Piping Plover Recovery Project Photo: Aerin Tedesco

Dr. Francesca Cuthbert, professor at University of Minnesota and Coordinator of the Great Lakes Piping Plover Recovery Project
Photo: Aerin Tedesco

The program included an insightful presentation from Dr. Francesca Cuthbert, a professor in the fisheries wildlife department of University of Minnesota and the coordinator of the Great Lakes Piping Plover Recovery project for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

Dr. Cuthbert outlined the progress that has been made in rebuilding the Great Lakes population of Piping Plovers from the brink of extinction. She noted that historically, this plover species was not present in huge numbers on Great Lakes beaches with the estimated historic population high was between 200 – 400 nesting pairs.

Beach development and human encroachment as well as an increase in predators, such as gulls, racoons and skunks, coupled with problems with disease, reduced the number of nesting pairs to 17 when the Great Lakes population was placed on the federal Endangered Species list in 1986.

The population now is up to about 70 nesting pairs and the species recovery goal is 150 pairs breeding on Great Lakes beaches.

Dr. Cuthbert praised Chicago for its “outstanding contribution to the recovery of the Great Lakes Piping Plover population” and noted that the efforts of volunteers and professional wildlife managers from the USFWS and Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) was “a clear demonstration that pipers can raise chicks to fledging in high-human use areas.”

The influence of positive press locally and nationwide helped to raise public awareness of the importance of protecting Piping Plovers also contributed to the widespread support for the birds from Chicagoans, she said, adding that the successful protection of the plovers in the summer of 2019 demonstrated “the power of a passionate birding community.”

The assembled crowd clapped and cheered when Dr. Cuthbert revealed the southern whereabouts of mother plover, Rose, who was spotted and photographed by a kayaker on a small sand key off Clearwater, Fla.

Slide from Dr. Cuthbert’s presentation showing where Rose is overwintering. Photo: Aerin Tedesco

Slide from Dr. Cuthbert’s presentation showing where Rose is overwintering.
Photo: Aerin Tedesco

Piper daddy, Monty, on the other hand, has not been spotted by plover watchers in the species’ U.S. range (the Carolinas south and west to Texas) and is suspected to be wintering on a beach in Mexico.

Dr. Cuthbert said like many Piping Plovers, Rose and Monty have strong site loyalty to their winter and summer locales and are likely to come back to breed on a Lake Michigan beach in Illinois in 2020, which drew another wild round of applause from the audience.

In further good news for Illinoisans, the two unbanded plover chicks born on Montrose Beach in 2019 also likely will return to the same area where they were hatched, Dr. Cuthbert said.

Brad Semel, Endangered Species Coordinator, Illinois Department of Natural Resources Photo: Aerin Tedesco

Brad Semel, Endangered Species Coordinator, Illinois Department of Natural Resources
Photo: Aerin Tedesco

In another presentation, Brad Semel, Endangered Species Coordinator, IDNR, explained the process of implementing Piping Plover protection on Montrose Beach after USFWS wildlife officials agreed that the state needed to intervene to protect the plovers and their nest.

The eastern portion of Montrose Beach was fenced off and educational signage was prominently displayed to educate the beach-going public. A protective cage was placed over the plover nest to protect the eggs and chicks from predation.

Mr. Semel said he was often awakened at night at home by a notification from a wildlife camera trained on the nest cage that an animal or bird was near the plovers. None of the plovers were victims of a predator, but one of the three chicks which hatched died from complications of a bacterial infection, an autopsy revealed.

Leslie Borns, the volunteer steward of the Montrose Dunes Illinois Nature Preserve, and Tamima Itani, a volunteer and an IOS board member, also held a panel discussion to answer questions from the audience about the summer plover project.

You can view the recorded portions of the night’s live stream on the IOS facebook page here!