Monty and Rose, two small shorebirds called piping plovers, got together as a pair at Montrose Beach Dunes in Chicago in 2019 and bred on the beach for three summers.
They were the first of these critically endangered plovers to nest at Montrose Beach Dunes in at least seven decades. Just a few decades ago, the number of these Great Lakes Piping Plovers dropped to 13 pairs; today the number is up to 65 or 70 pairs.
What drew Monty and Rose to Montrose?
Look at a map of the Chicago coastline. As far as Waukegan Beach, a single “point” of land juts east into Lake Michigan. This point was part of the landfill that in the late 1920s expanded Lincoln Park and created DuSable Lake Shore Drive.
During World War II, the point was taken over by the military, which built a Nike missile site in the 1950s. A row of non-native honeysuckle bushes was planted to conceal the structures. For a tired migratory bird, having flown all night, the shrubs must have looked like a welcome sanctuary for rest and food.
The birds have come. The ornithologists have come. The shrubs became known as “the magic hedge”. The location has become an annual spring and fall attraction for birds and birdwatchers. The Chicago Park District expanded and improved it as the Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary.
Adjacent to the bird sanctuary is the Montrose Beach Dunes Natural Area. This generously sized beach is also shaped by man. Natural wind and wave forces have increased its size and shaped the sand into a foredune and pan (a rare natural wetland). Volunteers planted native species and worked to keep it free of invasive species. The Chicago Park District has also expanded this area. The hope was to create an attractive place for endangered Piping Plovers to nest, but would that ever happen?
When Monty and Rose arrived it was a dream come true!
Monty and Rose both hatched in 2017 in Michigan. They met on Waukegan Beach in 2017, returned in 2018 and intertwined, but the attempt failed. They flew to Montrose Beach and spent the rest of the summer of 2018 there. They must have looked at it and found it suitable. In 2019 they returned to Montrose and nested, but at the start of the season they may have had second thoughts. They moved back and forth between Waukegan and Montrose before settling down to raise chicks.
Monty and Rose and eventually their nest, eggs and young had to be watched constantly, as they were always threatened by gulls and other beach predators. The nest was caged, but the adults were free to roam.
Enter Evanston resident Tamima Itani, member of other bird clubs and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Itani, originally from Lebanon, studied at the American University of Beirut, holds a doctorate in biomedical engineering from Northwestern University and has over 25 years in the medical device industry. In an exquisite example of “you never know where life will take you,” she became the person who set the monitoring schedule and became a major spokesperson for plovers. How did it happen?
Itani was a new birder in 2017, having been enchanted by birds on a trip to South Africa and neighboring countries to see the big animals – lions, elephants, zebras and other African icons. With her small camera, she found herself capturing images of birds of species unknown to her. Back in Evanston and needing to know more, she contacted Evanston resident and bird expert Josh Engel to help her identify the birds in her photos. She bought a bigger camera, joined bird-watching organizations, and began visiting Montrose to learn about local and migratory birds.
In 2017, Itani had never heard of a piping plover. An ornithologist friend mentioned that two piping plovers had appeared in Waukegan and she went to see them. They were called Monty and Rose – but didn’t have a name yet and hadn’t settled down in Montrose yet.
In 2019, the two piping plovers showed up for some serious housekeeping in Montose, where Itani was visiting. On June 3, she and others noticed the male bird scraping a nest. It was the first year, and there was no monitoring system. A two-hour shift system was designed on the fly. Itani was reluctant to speak to the press.
By the second year, 2020, things had changed. Experience from previous years has led to formal two-hour watch shifts. COVID-19 had limited the number of people allowed in Montrose but had not eliminated prowling and flying animal predators. Due to visitor limits, Itani became the spokesperson for the Greater Chicago Piping Plover out of necessity, providing insight into the daily lives of the birds. She got tired of naming them by the band numbers on their legs and named them Monty and Rose.
Nature knows no borders, birds know no borders. Connecting the wintering and breeding grounds of the birds is essential. Experience with wintering habitats has a huge effect on the birds’ ability to migrate and breed, something we don’t think about in Chicago as we look forward to seeing migrants in May.
During the winter of 2021-22, Itani visited naturalists at the plovers’ wintering grounds. Monty spent the winter on an urbanized beach in Texas; he always seemed comfortable around people. Rose wintered on an uninhabited island in Florida; she was shy. Monty and Rose provided links between naturalists in the multiple states through which plovers wintered and migrated.
Monty and Rose fostered bonds between people despite differences in professions, ages and backgrounds. The value of birds goes far beyond nesting on an iconic Chicago beach: they have shown that the impact of birds can never be underestimated.
The average lifespan of a piping plover is five years. Monty returned to Montrose Beach on April 21, 2022. Rose never returned. Another female arrived, stayed a few days and left. On May 13, Monty showed signs of stress and died. An autopsy revealed that Monty had died of a fungal infection which led to laryngitis, which restricted his ability to breathe.
Although the end was sad, there is a sign of hope: one of the descendants of 2021, Imani, has returned to his native land in Montrose. Maybe it will find a mate and breed? Itani and the other members of the Piping Plover community will be watching.
Itani found time to write two books on plovers. She provides a fuller account of their life in Montrose by Monty and Rose Nest in Montrose and Monty and Rose return to Montrose. Both books are available at This site.
Proceeds from the sale of the book are donated to the University of Minnesota Research Foundation to fund research into the plight of captive piping plover chicks and to learn more about their wintering grounds.
Several films about the two birds are also available here. (Movies cost to rent or buy, but you can also watch promos to see the two plovers on the beach.)