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Could these cute little birds kill a major lakefront music fest?

Conservationists want MAMBY on the Beach moved from Montrose Beach to protect the endangered piping plovers who have built a nest there. But promoters saying millions of dollars are at stake.

A piping plover walks in the area sectioned off for the endangered species on Montrose Beach, Thursday afternoon, June 13, 2019. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Bird conservationists — who are literally standing guard over the nest of two endangered sand birds at Montrose Beach — are calling for a major lakefront concert to be moved or canceled because it threatens to upset the birds’ habitat.

Two piping plovers recently created a bowl-shaped nest in the sandy beach and laid four eggs — a rare and cherished occasion among birders. Because of their endangered status, a roped-off perimeter has been placed around their nest.

As the momma bird began laying eggs, volunteers from Chicago’s birding community have been standing guard in two-hour shifts for the past few days during daylight hours — to keep dogs and others away and to chat up a curious public.

A small area of Montrose Beach is sectioned off for nesting piping plovers, an endangered shorebird, Thursday morning, June 13, 2019. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

One of the many threats is MAMBY on the Beach, say bird conservation groups lead by the Chicago Ornithological Society. The musical festival is scheduled to take place on Aug. 23 and 24 and expected to draw as many as 20,000 people to the lakefront each day.

Seeking to allay concerns about the safety of the birds, Jerry Mickelson, who heads up concert organizer JAM Productions, said he’d be willing to pick up the tab to supplement the dawn-to-dusk volunteers with overnight private security during the concert festival.

He made the offer earlier this week during a meeting with city officials and the leaders of several concerned businesses and community groups, including Jill Niland of the Montrose Lakefront Coalition, which is seeking to have the festival moved away from the Montrose Beach area.

MAMBY on the Beach has been held on Oakwood Beach on the South Side, but is moving to Montrose Beach this August.
Provided

Late last month the coalition sent a letter to the Chicago Park District “emphatically” requesting the event not be allowed to take place at or near Montrose Beach. One main concern: violation of the Endangered Species Act under which the birds are protected.

Mickelson, upset the coalition hadn’t aired their concerns previously despite an attempt to sit down with the group, responded with a missive reading, in part: “Why do you feel that MAMBY music fans do not have the right to enjoy Montrose Beach just like others do? Who appointed MLC as gate keeper?”

He went on: “Let me warn you that there are millions of dollars at risk here and all of you might be exposing yourselves to this liability by your interference with our right to hold this event at Montrose Beach that you have requested/insisted the park district not allow.”

Enter Mother Nature

However, Mother Nature appears to be throwing a wrench in everyone’s plans.

Due to high water that’s taken over much of Montrose Beach, Mickelson is in the process of creating a contingency plan to move the festival to a grassy field adjacent to the beach. Another meeting to discuss the plan is expected to take place in early July.

The same high water threatens the plovers.

On Wednesday night, ahead of forecasted storms and an encroaching waterline, representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed four piping plover eggs and handed them off to the avian curator at the Lincoln Park Zoo for safekeeping.

Piping plover eggs before they were removed from the birds’ Montrose Beach nest.
Courtesy of Tamima Itani
The piping plover pair
Provided/Tamima Itani

It was a nick-of-time measure. By Thursday morning the birds’ nest was covered in several inches of water.

But the plovers remained, undeterred, and appear to again be engaging in courtship behavior and settling into a new sandy nest a bit further inland from their last home, according to Louise Clemency, field supervisor for the Chicago office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Niland told the Sun-Times Thursday there was concern over the waves of people and noise pollution from three stages disrupting the piping plovers and any potential offspring — which probably wouldn’t learn to fly until late August — as well as a nearby protected grassy dune area and adjacent bird sanctuary.

”We hope there will be some sort of public pressure because of the birds, but also because of the overuse of this park by private groups that nibble away at the space that the public would normally use,” Niland said.

A bird stands in an area sectioned off at Montrose Beach for nesting piping plovers, an endangered shorebird, Thursday morning, June 13, 2019.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

‘We’re good neighbors’

Mickelson said that the concert’s footprint would still allow room for others to enjoy the beach. And he pledged, as he did at a Mumford and Sons concert he staged near the beach a few years ago, to hire security to keep concertgoers from any nearby natural areas.

”We’re good neighbors. We’ve got a great track record going back 47 years. But there’s some people you can never make happy and, I’m sorry, [Niland] seems like one of them, But we’ll continue to work with her,” Mickelson said.

Asked if he thought the festival was in jeopardy, Mickelson said: “I don’t know. I hope not. I walked out of the meeting Monday and that’s not the impression that I got. I thought all the people were happy and pleased with what I said. But I can’t please everyone all the time.”

The festival was held at Oakwood Beach in Bronzeville for the last few years, but Mickelson said he moved it north for the shows this year — which feature Flying Lotus and local standout Noname — because that’s where the fans, many from the LGBTQ community, wanted it.

Ald. James Cappleman, whose 46th ward includes Montrose Beach, will not be able to weigh in on the matter until he sees the contingency plans to move the concert inland, according to his chief of staff, Tressa Feher.

She noted that crowded events and concerts have taken place at and nearby Montrose Beach in the past “and the birds are still coming.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service is not taking a stance on the matter, other than saying that holding the festival in the nearby lawn would be “a much better option for the plovers,” Clemency said.

Michele Lemons, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Park District, didn’t address specific concerns in an email Thursday but said details are still being sorted out.

“The Chicago Park District is in discussions with Mamby Festival to negotiate an agreement that would bring the event to Montrose Beach,” she said. “No details have been finalized nor has the Chicago Park District issued a permit at this time. We will continue to work with the organizers to address the concerns of the community. If an agreement is reached, proceeds from Mamby Festival will generate revenue to support programming in local parks.”

Tickets are already on sale.

A piping plover flies near the area sectioned off for the endangered species on Montrose Beach, Thursday afternoon, June 13, 2019.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
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