By Bob Dolgan
Last December, I found myself in the midst of a career transition and looking to see as many bird species as possible. I was driving out to Chicago’s hinterlands regularly to add birds to my 2018 Illinois list. I also was visiting Chicago’s Montrose Point, a legendary birding locale that’s about three-quarters of a mile from home. I was up against the clock without much time left in the year and with a relatively small number of winter birds left to identify.
Then something unusual happened at Montrose Point: a piping plover showed up late in the season and didn’t seem interested in leaving for its wintering grounds on the Atlantic coast. Day after day it stayed at the beach, through cold, wind, rain and snow. What it was subsisting on still remains puzzling.
Great Lakes beaches in winter can be desolate. The sky is mostly a steel gray. It’s usually bitterly cold and the wind can cut right through even the most well-considered layering. It also can be beautiful. It’s often utterly silent except for the sounds of waves lapping the shore. The sunrises and sunsets are gorgeous. There were a few days where the only living creatures on the beach were birders and the piping plover, eventually dubbed “Dodger” for eluding a capture attempt by biologists.
Dodger finally moved on after ringing in 2019 at Montrose, but the experience stuck with me, as I’m sure it did with other birders.
Fast forward a few months, and I was steadily chalking up species for my 2019 Illinois list. The number of bird species and the overall volume of birds was plentiful during spring migration. Then as part of an exciting new career possibility, I traveled to northern Michigan, where I was to write about the native flora and fauna of the iconic Sleeping Bear Dunes. I was thrilled at the opportunity. I wasn’t thinking about piping plovers when park staff pointed me to a beach for part of my story. “Turn right into the parking lot and you can walk out on a nice beach there,” stated an email with directions. Soon I realized the beach was home to at least three piping plover nests and I managed to snap a bunch of pictures, pictures that worked for the story, too. The plovers had become a talisman of sorts.
Then came a group text, sent to a bunch of serious Chicago birders on June 1: a pair of piping plovers were demonstrating nesting behavior at Montrose. I was at the site within a day, one of the busiest sections of the beach at Montrose, and soon signed up to monitor the nest. And I wasn’t alone. The presence of “Monty and Rose,” as the birds came to be called, drew a massive response from birders and non-birders alike who simply wanted to help protect the birds. Within a few days, at least 100 people had signed up to volunteer through a coordinated effort of Chicago Audubon Society, Chicago Ornithological Society and Illinois Ornithological Society.
One of the great outcomes of Monty and Rose nesting has been the opportunity to educate the public about the birds. People of all ages and all interest levels stop by to check out the nest. Some people have never heard of a plover. Other people have been coming to Montrose daily for years but have never stopped to look at birds. It’s taken on a life of its own, and I believe we now have a template to host these birds for years to come.
The last thing I’ll say is that this is not just about Monty and Rose but the protection of a wondrous ecosystem here on the southwest shore of Lake Michigan. Due to the efforts of amazing volunteers through many years, we have a true natural treasure in Montrose, one that should be celebrated. Montrose is right there with Cape May in New Jersey, Point Pelee in Ontario and Magee Marsh in Ohio. Somebody recently called Central Park in New York the top place to see migrating birds in the country. Pffft. Montrose dwarfs it in terms of the number of species seen, almost 350 to date.
We have an opportunity to capture the imagination of all Chicagoans because of Monty and Rose and to provide lasting protection for Montrose Point. That’s why I enlisted a nature videographer to start filming Monty and Rose and the birds of Montrose Point. That’s why I launched a Kickstarter to get the funding for a documentary that tells the story of the phenomena in our midst. That’s why I hope you’ll make a small pledge so that this film becomes a reality.
Bob Dolgan is a Board Member of Chicago Ornithological Society. You can contribute to the Kickstarter by clicking here.