Monty and Rose the Chicago Piping Plovers are Gone, but Their Species Still Deserves Attention
(June 28, 2022) Two intrepid little Piping Plovers named Monty and Rose captured the hearts of many when they chose to nest on a crowded stretch of sand near Chicago called Montrose Beach in 2019. As members of the Federally Endangered Great Lakes population of Piping Plovers, they were an exciting and surprising addition to the urban beach. Just 70 pairs of the species nest in the entire region. Monty and Rose served as ambassadors, giving people a rare opportunity to see members of an at-risk population up close.
For three years, both birds returned to their breeding grounds in Chicago and successfully raised their chicks. This year, however, Monty succumbed to a fungal infection and Rose never returned from her nonbreeding grounds along the Gulf Coast. As we mourn the loss of this charismatic team, it is also a good time to reflect on their legacy. The couple are gone, but other Piping Plovers in need of attention and conservation efforts live on.
American Bird Conservancy's (ABC) Gulf Coast team member Kristen Vale was lucky enough to spend time with Monty at his nonbreeding grounds on the Texas Gulf Coast while he was alive. ABC's Writer/Editor Rachel Fritts sat down with Kristen to ask her about her surprising discovery of Monty in Bolivar Flats in 2020, the importance of the Gulf Coast to Endangered shorebirds like Monty, and the value of conserving incredible species like the Piping Plover.
Rachel: Kristen, can you tell me a little about your role with ABC and how it put you in contact with Monty?
Kristen: In our Gulf Coastal Program, I conduct nonbreeding surveys at select beaches on the upper Texas coast, around Galveston, documenting species of conservation concern, Piping Plovers being one of them. In the fall of 2020, myself and another person reported a banded Piping Plover in the Galveston area that had similar bands to Monty. The banding team informed me they weren't able to say with 100 percent certainty that it was Monty, because there were other Piping Plovers with similar band combos. At that time, the folks in Chicago didn't know where Monty spent his winters and they were anxious to know. So I was told that there would be some very happy people in Chicago if I could help confirm that the banded bird I saw was in fact Monty.
So one January day I had some extra time on my hands so I went searching for Monty. The tide was low that day and I assumed the best place to look for him was at Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary, as that sanctuary provides some of the best foraging in the area. After an hour of trudging through the mudflats and sorting through around 70 individual plovers, I found the banded bird. I slowly nudged close enough to get enough photos of his bands to positively ID him. That day I emailed the banding team and got confirmation — it was Monty! The next day the update was published on the Chicago Piping Plover blog and made its way to the Chicago newspaper. It was an exciting time!
R: So, you work in Texas, but Monty gained his fame in Chicago. Why did he travel down to your area in the winter? What makes this part of Texas appealing to Piping Plovers during the nonbreeding months?
K: Texas is a very important coastline for Piping Plovers — it supports approximately 50 percent of the entire species population in the winter. So Piping Plover conservation in Texas is incredibly important for the recovery and continued survival of the species. Even though Texas supports that many Piping Plovers, Monty wintering on the upper Texas coast was a pretty rare treat. Monty is part of the Endangered Great Lakes population, and the majority of that population winters on the Atlantic coast and the South Florida Gulf coast. We might get a couple Great Lakes Piping Plovers that migrate through the upper Texas coast, but usually not one overwintering. So to learn we had a famous plover wintering with us on top of that was a tremendous honor!
On top of Texas having mild winters that allow for shorebirds to comfortably overwinter, I suspect Monty was attracted to our region because of Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary. It provides reliable foraging areas in their expansive tidal flats during low tides that can support thousands of shorebirds, with multiple records of around 100 Piping Plovers on a single day. Bolivar Flats is a Globally Important Bird Area and an International site in the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network.
R: The Gulf Coast is important to so many different species of shorebirds, and your work with ABC gives you a front row seat to their lives. What do Piping Plovers and other shorebirds do in the nonbreeding season? What did Monty get up to when he was out of the spotlight?
K: I have spent many hours studying Piping Plovers on the upper Texas coast and have learned that they have a fairly predictable daily routine. During high tides, you will mostly find them on the beach, feeding and roosting. And during low tides, you'll mostly find them in the exposed bayside tidal flats, foraging on their favorite prey, polychaete worms (tiny, segmented marine worms that live in sand flats).
Monty would go from being a single family unit in Chicago to attending a Piping Plover convention in the tidal flats, which can host 70-plus plovers at times. But he got his alone time when he moved to his individual “beach territory” during high tides. These birds become quite defensive against other Piping Plovers moving into their beach territory. It's fun to watch them stake their claim. Monty's high tide territory was at East Beach in Galveston, and his low tide territory was at Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary. The two sites are about 2 miles apart and are separated by the Houston Ship Channel. So he got to watch cruise ships, cargo ships, and oil tankers going in and out of the port.
R: Monty reached the average lifespan for his species (they typically don't live longer than 5 years in the wild), but not all Piping Plovers have that opportunity. Great Lakes Piping Plovers are federally listed as Endangered. What are some of the risks this species faces? What obstacles would Monty deal with on his journey between Texas and the Chicago area each year?
K: One significant threat, both in the breeding and nonbreeding range, are birds of prey. Peregrine Falcons and Merlin are regular visitors to the beach in their winter range, often posted near large concentrations of shorebirds. When all the shorebirds take flight, you know there is a falcon nearby coming to hunt. Vehicles and unleashed dogs are some of the daily threats they deal with from humans. Migration is a very dangerous time in the birds' life cycle. Storms tend to be prevalent during that time, and that puts the birds at risk of being caught in headwinds or a hurricane. It can exhaust the birds and make them weak or push them off course into unfamiliar territory.
R: We've talked about the value of this region to shorebirds, but I want to flip that around — what's the value that these beach birds bring to the area? Why fight to protect them from these dangers and make sure they keep coming back?
K: Shorebirds bring an economic value to our area. We're in a diversity-rich area that brings in many birders, particularly during spring migration. I meet so many people on the beach from so many different states and countries, all chasing these amazing birds. The birds are also a selling point for people that live or move to the area. People are interested in living near nature and it's another way we can help make more stewards for the beach birds. Not only is it our responsibility to ensure the birds have a place to call home, we protect these birds for the same reason that attracted us to the area, to enjoy being out in nature with them.
R: Monty and Rose are gone, but right now there are many other determined Piping Plover parents raising their chicks on beaches across the Great Lakes region — chicks that will soon grow up and fly south to your area. What's the one thing you would ask folks to do to help ensure these beach birds can live long, healthy lives?
K: I'd ask people to be aware that they are sharing the beach with beach birds. The birds rely on the beach to nest, raise their chicks, feed, rest, take cover from danger. They do it all on the beach. Their lives literally depend on it. We need to ensure we all leave enough space for them to not only survive day-to-day, but also to sustain and hopefully increase their populations. And how we can help them is easy: As we often say in my ABC program, Fish, Swim, and Play from 50 Yards Away!
American Bird Conservancy is a nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving wild birds and their habitats throughout the Americas. With an emphasis on achieving results and working in partnership, we take on the greatest problems facing birds today, innovating and building on rapid advancements in science to halt extinctions, protect habitats, eliminate threats, and build capacity for bird conservation. Find us on abcbirds.org, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter (@ABCbirds).