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Why an extra 1 1⁄2 acres of lakefront protection for the birds should matter to every Chicagoan

The presence of a pair of piping plovers on Montrose Beach is the culmination of an environmental success story that began 20 years ago.

Monty, an endangered piping plover, swimming at Chicago’s Montrose Beach in 2019.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Some people didn’t take me seriously two years ago when I said I was going to make a documentary about a pair of little birds. A couple of people called to check on me to see if I was okay.

I was (and am) doing just fine, thank you. And the plight of those birds — endangered piping plovers who became known as Monty and Rose — isn’t a joke. Only 64 pairs remain on earth, and there were only 13 pairs as recently as 1990.

It’s time the city starts taking the birds seriously, too.

The presence of the plover pair is the culmination of an environmental success story that began in Chicago 20 years ago when a plant called lakeshore rush, which essentially looks like a clump of grass, took hold on Montrose Beach. The Chicago Park District stopped grooming that section of beach and something remarkable happened; other rare plants emerged from the sand and began to spread.

By 2006, this section of Montrose Beach became one of only two Illinois Natural Areas inventory sites on Chicago’s North and Northwest sides, recognized for its globally rare dune ecosystem. Only 200 such acres exist in the world.

The next chapter in the story started two years ago. That’s when Monty and Rose landed at Montrose Beach and decided to stay to nest. The low dunes and standing water provided the ideal setting for a young pair of piping plovers. Remarkably, the habitat at Montrose — in the middle of a metropolis — resembled the wilder sections of the western Michigan coast from where the birds came.

You may know the rest of the story. The birds endured the threat of an ill-advised music festival that would have encroached on the beach. They made it through umpteen encounters with people, predators and volleyballs with the help of dozens and dozens of volunteers standing watch.

Now, there is a modest proposal to expand space for the plovers and the amount of natural habitat at Montrose Beach. An additional protected acre and a half would encompass the birds’ feeding spaces and that of many other bird species, some of which travel here from as far as the Arctic. It’s a modest request — a little more land for a little more safeguarding — for a pair of birds that have brought joy to so many during difficult times.

It would also allow for a more comprehensive management of the site, where some rare plants also have sprouted in recent years due to lake flooding.

Montrose Beach Dunes Volunteer Site Steward Leslie Borns says the Park District was for this expansion of the protected dunes area before it was against it. The Park District has been mostly mum in response, saying the matter is being reviewed, but the district has noted that it must balance many competing uses of the city’s lakefront, including for kayaking and beach volleyball.

Some things are worth more than money, though. And the importance of preserving and cherishing our natural world has taken on added meaning for pandemic-exhausted Chicagoans in the past year.

“We needed Monty and Rose more than they needed us,” Tamima Itani, the lead plover monitor and volunteer organizer, told me.

How a city treats an endangered species says volumes about its approach to the environment. And a foothold in Chicago might just mean that the goal of restoring the Great Lakes piping plover population to 150 pairs could be in reach.

That can start with one more acre and a half, just as something good started on Montrose Beach with one clump of grass all those years ago.

Filmmaker Bob Dolgan produced the 2019 documentary “Monty and Rose,” which tells the story of a pair of endangered piping plovers attempting to nest on Chicago’s busy Montrose Beach. Dolgan is now working on a second film about the birds.

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