Race to save piping plovers
Endangered birds’ habitats encroach on humans and canceled Mamby music fest
Monty ran into Rose at Montrose Beach in early June and immediately, right there in the chilly spring air, on a busy stretch of Lake Michigan, began having a lot of sex. We know because Tamima Itani, a retired vice president of a medical device company who lives in Evanston, was watching. She took notes. As did others. In fact, a lot of people, for the past couple of years, have taken a lot of notes on Monty and Rose. We know, for instance, that Monty was born in Silver Lake State Park, near Muskegon, Michigan, in 2017, amid the dune buggies and tourists. And we know Rose was born in Muskegon, beside a parking lot.
We know Monty and Rose first met in
Waukegan, in the spring of 2018. Both had flown into town separately, though most likely, both wintered in South Carolina. They settled for the summer in a parking lot across from Waukegan Municipal Beach. It wasn’t the loveliest of vacation spots. The parking lot is made of loose rocks. Smokestacks loom. The beach gets crowded, and the shoreline is not without AriZona ice tea bottles and Starbucks cups.
Yet Monty and Rose romanced there, Rose gave birth there; the Illinois Department of Natural Resources even fenced off their boudoir to provide the couple with privacy. All was well.
Until locals began doing doughnuts perilously close to the summer residence of
Monty and Rose. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service , fearing worse, swept in and removed Monty and Rose’s fledgling clutch from their care and drove the unhatched offsprint into northern Michigan, to be raised in less chaotic circumstances.
As domestic bliss goes, Waukegan was a bust.
Monty returned to the parking lot this past spring. He was alone this time. It was Easter morning. He stayed for a little while. Then he left and rendezvoused with Rose at Montrose.
Within weeks of their reunion, Rose was pregnant again. But life didn’t get happier: Monty and Rose had made their home unwittingly close to the planned location of the Mamby on the Beach music festival, not to mention acres of volleyball courts. They had settled in the path of the tens of thousands of beachgoers who flock to Montrose every summer.
Monty and Rose are piping plovers.
They’re small shore birds. Perhaps you’ve heard of Monty and Rose. Rose’s first clutch of eggs at Montrose, nearly swamped by spring rains and rising lake levels, was removed and sent to Michigan, to a University of Michigan research station near the Mackinac Bridge, to be reared with more certainty (alas, several weeks later, the clutch died).
Then Rose gave birth again. This second clutch of eggs has already hatched three chicks; a fourth egg did not hatch, placing Monty and Rose firmly into the 75% success rate for piping plover eggs raised in the wild. If these chicks are raised without incident — about 50% survive long enough to fly, with most taking about 23 days to learn to fly — the birds should be airborne by early August.
And that would be remarkable.
Because piping plovers are federally endangered in the Great Lakes. Though there’s some evidence the species settled near Wolf Lake on the Illinois-Indiana border as recently as 1961, Monty and Rose are the first piping plovers confirmed to nest in the city of Chicago; and their three new chicks are first piping plovers born in Cook County in almost 60 years.
As of early July, there are a mere 73 pairs of piping plovers across the Great Lakes. Monty and Rose are the only two nesting on the Chicago side of Lake Michigan. But the birds, once familiar on its western shoreline, were never ubiquitous here. According to Francie Cuthbert, a professor of wildlife biology at the University of Minnesota who has spent the past four decades trying to revive this bird’s fortunes in the Midwest, the entire Great Lakes population likely never topped 400.
Their problem is, piping plovers like what we like.
Their preferred habitat is our preferred habitat — wide, sandy beaches with pleasant shorelines. So, wherever they go — tourist haunts in the Great Lakes, resort islands on the Atlantic — they generate tiny speckled eggs and big controversies. In Chicago, that has meant that the Mamby at the Beach music festival, set for Montrose in late August, was was canceled, after weeks of speculation about how it might affect the birds. In a statement on Friday, organizers cited the plovers as one reason for the decision.
Luckily, for the plover, a small army of allies has been leading a longtime conservation effort throughout the Midwest, to return the bird to some normalcy in the Great Lakes, however slowly. In the early 1990s, the population was about 15, and entirely in Michigan. Today, plovers are in every Great Lakes state (as well as on the Canadian side of the lakes).
But after 33 years on the endangered list, only 73 pairs is glacial progress, and the goal for complete recovery is modest — a mere 150 pairs. That’s for all of the Great Lakes.
So, these allies, they sweat every bird.
“Compared with other endangered birds, plovers are hard,” says Vince Cavalieri of U.S. Fish and Wildlife, who coordinates plover recovery in the Great Lakes. “With a lot of birds, health is tied to health of habitat. But plovers are in constant conflict between what humans want and what’s best for plovers.” In other words, in an age of species decline, as water levels rise and habitat shrinks, as climate change reshapes our world, the fate of one species of bird is more than a sincere cause. It’s also a helpful lesson: How much will ordinary people do to save an endangered species?
Alice Van Zoeren has been catching, banding and tracking plovers for 15 summers; Stephanie Schubel has been doing it for 16 seasons. They are two of the dozen or so people in the Great Lakes federally licensed to band the piping plover, and they rarely seem far apart. In the field, they communicate on walkietalkies among themselves, and to additional banders, bird monitors and park rangers, most in long-sleeve trail shirts and light pants, lugging telescopes, their safari vests sagging low with gear.
On a morning in June, they are moving slowly along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. They are shadowed on one side by the towering sands of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in northern Michigan, hemmed in on the other by a sliver of swamped beach.
You hear plovers before you see plovers.
Pleep … pleep, pleep … pleep …
The sound is mournful and sweet. It also serves as a GPS. The birds are like Magic Eye puzzles, so seamlessly integrated into their palate of wet sand and rippling marsh, they are revealed only after staring for a while at where you guess they are. The day is bright and windy, and sand kicks across the face of Stephen Brede, a retired Michigan newspaperman who works now as a plover monitor about 30 hours a week. He tugs a scarf onto his nose. He’s flanked by Schubel, whose eyes scan the ground for the skittering birds. She grew up near Saginaw, working a cash register at her family’s gokart business. She fell in love with plovers at the University of Michigan. She peeks through binoculars, stares into vegetation, speaks in a rush: “We push them to the shore or lose them in the grass.”
Van Zoeren, herself a UM graduate whose grandfather developed the Ann Arbor Park District, and whose long white hair and chiseled expression look reminiscent of pioneer women, crackles through the walkie-talkie: “Right, let’s all move forward a little bit now.”
About 30 pairs of the birds almost half the Great Lakes population return annually to Sleeping Bear, so it’s where Schubel and Co., the Great Lakes Piping Plover Conservation Team, concentrate attention. The banding program which tags and tracks plovers, providing a population survey is 26 years old. But only in the past decade, through the federally driven Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, has there been predictable funding for plovers. Before that, whatever hope there was to save the birds meant cobbling together occasional government and nonprofit resources.
The team’s chick catching thing-a-ma-jigs, however, come courtesy of Van Zoeren. They are handsewn circus tents with netted big tops for trapping the fast, darting plover chicks.
Schubel and Van Zoeren and others fan out, forming a large perimeter around a nest. “Everyone ready,” Schubel says, then slowly the group pushes inward. What happens next is fairly predictable: The parental plovers fly off, the chirps of their chicks grow urgent, then, without a clear signal, the team pounces. What unfolds resembles a kind of perverse episode of “Cops,” though instead of naked fugitives bolting out a door and fleeing across a lawn, picture puffs of cotton sprinting across a beach.
The team kneels in wet sand and carefully lifts each chick into a sack; the birds are weighed, recorded and banded with a tracking tag, which is wrapped around a leg and soldered. (Schubel, who tagged Monty and Rose this way, says plover legs are so thin, the soldering only burns the person doing the banding.) They only go through the trouble of surrounding and catching a chick if it’s been alive about two weeks; they need to see if it will survive predators and human intrusion.
They band for five hours that day beneath a cloudless blue sky and pounding sun. Van Zoeren pulls out a color-coded chart of where each nesting bird and clutch of eggs in the Great Lakes was born and when it is due for attention. She is wondering aloud about the wisdom of their next job, pulling the eggs from a mother who isn’t showing interest in her offspring, when Schubel’s phone buzzes. “Yes,” she says. “Oh, hi. Oh! I see. OK … OK …”
“WHAT?” Van Zoeren mouths.
Schubel puts a hand over the phone.
It’s two plover monitors in the Upper Peninsula. They lost an egg. “Do they know why?” Van Zoeren asks. Schubel shrugs and she returns to the phone. Van Zoeren peppers her: “Snakes? Foxes? People?” She tells Schubel they should make a perimeter around the nest and wait it out, see what shows up. Plover work is a lot of this, waiting and observing. Later that day, Van Zoeren and Schubel wait themselves for hours, for the return of the wayward mother. Eventually the mother returned. Schubel made it home herself around 1 a.m.
Why the piping plover?
Because it’s endangered, that’s why.
That’s what you get when you ask, why protect the piping plover? You also hear (as Van Zoeren tells me) the bird is emblematic of the Great Lakes shoreline, and (as Cavalieri says) it’s an umbrella species. Meaning, protect the piping plovers and you are protecting other coastal birds and plants that exist in its habitat. (Indeed, in just the past few weeks, inside the plover’s ropedoff, human-free enclosure on Montrose Beach, sea rocket, a state threatened plant, has begun to flourish.) Still, there are other endangered species in the Chicago area the Hine’s emerald dragonfly being maybe the best known. And frankly, the piping plover, cute as it is, looks frail. Its population is somewhat stable, but this is tentative, right? When I asked about its chances of full recovery, Brad Semel, a natural heritage biologist for the IDNR, noted the success of sandhill cranes in the Great Lakes. They were endangered in the 1980s. “Now I get reports of them chasing people.”
If none of those sound like good enough reasons to close beaches and disrupt music festivals, then consider this: As endangered species go, the piping plover is also relatable.
They are social, but not that social. When they are not eating, they prefer to disappear into their homes and avoid being bothered by strangers. They have large, dark, pleading anime eyes; they are not intimidating to anyone but the worms and beetles they forage for. They will fly long distances across water; but once they land, they like to stay on the beach — on the finest real estate they can find, smack along our shorelines.
The piping plover is about 7 inches long and lives around seven years. When they are breeding, both males and females acquire a tasteful black collar around their necks. They eat invertebrates. They are slaves to routine. The majority live in the same spot every year — and vacation in the same spot. Most Great Lakes piping plovers spend the fall and winter in South Carolina; Canadian plovers spend the fall and winter in North Carolina. There are about 8,400 in the world.
“There is a perception that environmental conservation is a thing that happens over there, in rainforests, mountains,” said Carl Giometti, president of the Chicago Ornithological Society. “But Chicago is a city, which recalibrates this view that we don’t have a role. We do. These plovers are reminders that we have a responsibility to nature.”
Their breeding grounds are the Northeast coastline, rivers of the Great Plains and beaches of the Great Lakes. In the Northeast, where there are about 2,000 pairs — and plover nesting is a seasonal headline, routinely disrupting firework displays and closing beaches — the bird is listed as federally threatened. In the Midwest, Michigan has always seen the largest population onesf piping plovers. Illinois didn’t have a single recorded nest between 1973 and 2009, when a pair spent one summer at Illinois Beach State Park in Zion.
It wasn’t always that way. A 1983 study by U.S. Fish and Wildlife noted 30 pairs nested in Waukegan during the 1800s, and speculated that some may have nested in Rogers Park and on the Chicago River. Still, that same report concluded “suitable breeding habitat” in the Chicago area was limited, to the North Shore and the Lake Calumet area to the south.
And so Monty and Rose are the first regulars to Illinois in 45 years.
Along with other species of shore bird in this country, the decline of the piping plover coincided with the development of coastlines in the 20th century, for condos, resort towns and vacation spots. What this meant was, as nesting grounds grew increasingly pinched, “we placed more stress on the plover,” said Melissa Chaplin, endangered species biologist for the South Carolina office of U.S. Fish and Wildlife. “When they head for the Great Lakes now, it’s critical. They need to produce new birds. But it’s such a short stay. Compound that with them nesting in areas in the Midwest already developed, with people on vacation wanting to push them out or failing to recognize birds use beaches too. So they are constantly vigilant. Which means less of a chance of survival. They get no downtime.”
Think you’re stressed? On shorelines along the East Coast and in the Gulf states, where most winter, plovers contend with antipiping plover billboards and bumper stickers that read “Piping Plover Tastes Like Chicken,” as well as beachfront development, long stretches of private shoreline, ATVs and unleashed dogs. Then they fly to the Great Lakes and minus the billboards and bumper stickers run into many of the same fears and most of the same predators, including foxes, gulls, skunks, coyotes, raccoons. At Montrose, add fireworks, volleyballs and the crowds from a proposed music festival to those dangers. Plovers are even being threatened by other troubled species — the merlin, a small falcon that had been waning in the Great Lakes, is now making a major comeback, and fast turning into the piping plover’s Enemy No. 1 in the Great Lakes.
When Francie Cuthbert began studying plovers at the University of Minnesota in the 1970s, there were a dozen pairs left in the Great Lakes. “They were functionally extinct here. If (researchers) hadn’t began finding ways to conserve them” — if the plover hadn’t made the endangered species list in 1986 — “maybe there would be one pair? Seventy or so now is not a lot. You might not think of Waukegan as ideal for endangered species. But the bird just looks for a signature on the landscape — a wide, sandy beach. At least it still exists.”
Last May, Emma England, a native of England, now president of the Lake County chapter of the Audubon Society, waited behind a folding table set up on the edge of Waukegan Municipal Beach. She waited for locals to show up and deliver her Plover Pledge. Which basically
amounts to saying that you will do right by the plover and encourage its vacationing in Illinois. A week earlier, on a sunny Saturday, several dozen took the pledge and received their “Plover Pal” patch. But this was a foggy, cold Saturday.
England, wearing plovershaped earrings, stood with a mountain of untouched plover-information pamphlets and samples of plover drawings from a local elementary school.
Waukegan was eager to be the Illinois home of the piping plover.
The birds (as well as other migratory species) were using a stretch from Waukegan to Illinois Beach State Park as a regular stop on their flight paths into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Factories and rusted old water towers may overlook Waukegan’s beach, but the area is also home to dunes, beach grasses and marshes. England regarded the 2018 plover nesting in Waukegan as Exhibit A for why the state should move fast to designate this uncommonly biodiverse stretch of Illinois shoreline as a nature preserve.
So she waited in the spring chill for anyone who might agree. “A lot of people I speak to in this area, they have never even seen this place, they are not at all aware of how special this area is. And it’s all sitting here, in their backyards.”
But just as the Lake County Audubon Society began organizing volunteers to stand guard over a new summer nest, the two birds relocated to Chicago and were rebranded Monty and Rose.
At Montrose, by midJune, the Chicago Ornithological Society had already organized several dozen volunteers into an entire summer of patrols, to watch the rare birds from dawn until dusk. Semel, from the IDNR, set up 24-hour surveillance cameras, though birder Tamima Itani, who organized the security, noticed Monty and Rose themselves showed a hearty selfreliance: Once nested, Rose took on red-winged blackbirds and Monty began chasing mallards several times his size. After their first nesting area was washed out, the birds’ second choice for a nest forced the Chicago Park District to shrink the volleyball area.
Watching from Waukegan, reading about the plovers and their egg clutches, England felt a bittersweet admiration for Chicago naturalist Leslie Borns, who has long served as volunteer steward of the Montrose Beach Dunes. Indeed, many in the local birding community, as well as environmental government agencies, are quick to single out Borns.
In the late ’80s, the nowretired book editor had experienced disabling injuries that slowed her movements. She lived near Montrose Point, and as she recovered, she would visit. But she was unable to move quickly and found herself closely watching the natural environment unfolding at her feet. She became fascinated with the beachfront. A decade later, still fixated, she noticed that Chicago Park District beach groomers were skipping a patch of shoreline. Here, rare vegetation sprouted. Soon, new bird species were visiting, endangered plants were thriving and, as this new vegetation trapped sand, dunes rose.
Borns pushed the city to protect the land, and today, there are about 12 acres of beach dunes at Montrose, some 15 feet high, with 12 nesting species of birds using it as home.
She had cleared a runway for the piping plover.
The other day, Borns, now in her 60s, still showing the steamrolling quality that helped transform Montrose, marched me to a sign near Monty and Rose’s nest. On the sign, which described the area’s biodiversity, was a picture of a plover. “We erected that sign 14 years ago,” she said. “The plover was wishful thinking. I didn’t actually believe they’d nest here.”
“I have,” she said, “a feeling of completion.”
If the piping plover can survive in the Great Lakes, never mind thrive,
whatever hope exists will go through Pellston, Michigan,
a small village of 800 about 20 minutes from the Mackinac Bridge and, since 1909, home to the University of Michigan Biological Station, a wooded research area with a kind of plover recovery facility. When Monty and Rose’s eggs were threatened by rising water (Montrose) and human intrusion (Waukegan), the clutches arrived here for artificial rearing.
More specifically, any plover eggs pulled from the Great Lakes arrive here via Vince Cavalieri of U.S. Fish and Wildlife, a 37-year-old mountain of a birder with a long beard. We met in front of the plover research center, which is actually a small shack at the heart of the biological station, itself a series of wooden cabins on a lake inside 10,000 acres of forest.
Think classic summer camp, think Bill Murray taunting the camp across the lake.
Outside the shack, a fenced-in pen sits partly submerged, to acclimate chicks to a natural beach habitat. Inside the decadeold plover center is not much larger than a oneroom schoolhouse. Zookeepers from around the country — placed here by the Detroit Zoological Society — rotate through. Among their focuses, a pair of artificial environments that hold the chicks successfully incubated here. Each enclosure has a heat lamp to mimic sun, a feather duster to imitate parents, along with vegetation, water and the sound of surf, piped in 24/7.
“How’s the Ontario chick?” Cavalieri asks a researcher.
“No,” she says, frowning. He nods.
He’s caring, but he’s pragmatic. There’s an endangered water beetle on the grounds, he mentions. It’s found in only five locations in the world, and it gets an ounce of the attention the piping plover gets. You can’t do everything. Great Lakes piping plovers leave about as many nests each summer as there are pairs of plovers. In fact, this year that figure is slightly up — with 81 nests from 73 pairs. Each clutch takes about 28 days to hatch. A lot can happen in that time. In the backroom of the rearing facility, there’s only room for about 30 eggs at a time. But they’ve never had that many at once.
Plover eggs come in abandoned by parents and swamped by rain and cracked by foxes. They are placed in what resembles a rice cooker to incubate. Beside it is a hatcher. Here, hour-old chicks stumble about on comically long legs, their eyes still sleepy from birth.
This, Cavalieri says, meaning the incubator, the sounds of surf, the facility, is a last resort.
“Eggs get transported a long distance. By the time they get here, they’ve been through a lot,” Cavalieri says. Each clutch is driven to northern Michigan, resting carefully inside small portable incubators. Cavalieri would prefer chicks were raised in the wild, but he also wants more plover chicks.
For instance, when I ask about Monty and Rose’s first Montrose clutch, the researcher on duty, Monica Blackwell of the Toledo Zoo, looks warily at Cavalieri.
They say nothing for a long moment.
“Doesn’t seem … promising,” she says finally.
Cavalieri smiles sadly. But it changed nothing about how they would handle the second clutch of eggs and the subsequent chicks. He made no plans to touch the eggs; and if the new chicks survive, Schubel will probably not band them, either. Not right away. Helping a piping plover, or any endangered species, is a dance. You step in, you step back. Montrose is so public they worry any attempt at wrangling the chicks may freak out Monty and Rose. As Louise Clemency, Chicago field supervisor for U.S. Fish and Wildlife, says, the more natural the birth of any new plovers, the more likely Monty and Rose will return next year.
At this rate, Cavalieri figures they’ll reach their goal of 150 plover pairs by about 2050.
He said even if the birds are taken off the endangered species list, he expects they will still require oversight to survive. Their frailty will continue. Only 25% of plovers hatched in the wild ever make it through a winter to migrate at all. Cavalieri told me about a piping plover he recovered in 2010 near Indiana Dunes National Park. It was Thanksgiving, long past the plovers’ typical migration. He drove from his home in Lansing. He found the bird injured, in freezing rain. He gave it to the Lincoln Park Zoo. It lived for years. He didn’t say this to saint himself. He said it because “It sounds crazy to people. But every bird matters.”
Great Lakes Piping Plover Conservation Team members Stephanie Schubel, Alice Van Zoeren, Hope Caliendo and biologist Adam Schubel.
Schubel checks the ID band she placed on a piping plover chick at Sleeping Bear National Dunes Lakeshore near Empire, Michigan.
Craig Campeau, a biological technician for the National Park Service, weighs a piping plover chick placed in a cloth bag.
Piping plover female Rose, right, leaves the nest as Monty takes his turn incubating their eggs at Montrose Beach in Chicago on July 18.
A chick runs away after ID bands are placed on its legs by members of the Great Lakes Piping Plover Conservation Team.
Piping plover eggs are kept in a hatcher at a captive rearing center in Pellston, Michigan, this month.