My most recent Piping Plover monitoring shift was my 14th since late April. Back then the temperatures were in the 40s and 50s with a stiff north wind. This time it was 85 degrees, hot and very calm. The dew point was an almost-unbearable 71.
The mood was somber. We’d just received word that Monty and Rose had lost two of their four chicks. My monitoring partner and I watched as Monty tangled over and over with an aggressive Killdeer. Monty would run at the Killdeer and away from it, enticing it to move from the grasses where the two remaining chicks were hidden. The Killdeer had an agenda, though, too, as its spindly juvenile was hanging around a few yards away. The Killdeer didn’t want the Piping Plovers around, and the Piping Plovers didn’t want the Killdeer around. It was a territorial battle one can imagine unfolding across the Great Lakes this summer, if not for centuries.
There was so much optimism on the beach when Rose and Monty returned to the beach in late April this year. People were being vaccinated. The world was opening up again. Something like a normal summer was on the way. But somewhere things became...more challenging...not unlike society’s wrestling match with a stubborn and insidious virus. Monty and Rose started the season with a nest in the middle of the new Montrose Beach Dunes habitat addition; it was the epitome of a conservation success story with a touch of serendipity that they chose to set up right where we wanted. Then there was a bizarre incident with a mylar balloon stuck against the nest exclosure in May. A couple weeks later a skunk attack resulted in the loss of all four eggs. It was a major setback, though the birds took it more in stride than many of their protectors.
As if to underscore the vagaries and vicissitudes of shorebird life, Monty and Rose’s chick Nish became a dad a short time later. Nish and his mate, Nellie, stunned everyone by becoming the first Piping Plovers to nest in Ohio in 80-plus years. They went on to raise four young ones to fledging in their first year as parents. It was a jaw-dropping feat, and one that will forever go down in Ohio birding lore.
Monty and Rose quickly re-nested, though the new site was closer to the dynamic shoreline and to a copse of willows (read: predator hangout). Maybe it was too much to expect a repeat of past year’s successes. We always knew that we were lucky. This year only seemed to confirm that.
Monty and Rose tended to their new nest faithfully, through a number of hot, dry days on the beach, and later, a couple of wicked storms. The four chicks hatched on July 7 and 8. The story of one chick wasn’t so simple, though. It was brought to Lincoln Park Zoo as an egg. There it incubated until it hatched. And in one of the most indelible moments of the summer, zoo staff and plover volunteers returned it to the beach to join its parents and siblings on the morning of the 10th.
All four chicks made it to banding on July 20, but within days two had gone missing. Falcons, killdeer, gulls...the potential predators are almost too numerous to count. It was nearly impossible for volunteers to possibly intervene and stop an attack.
We can take solace in the fact that “Zoo Baby,” now officially Siewka, is still with us. Siewka (pronounced SHE-ev-ka) and sibling Imani may be the next-generation plovers to follow in Nish’s footsteps.
Still, most of us are ending this season smiling. The reality is that Monty and Rose have hatched 11 chicks from the busiest beach in Chicago during the past three summers. And absolutely no one could have ever predicted that.
My new documentary, "Monty and Rose 2: The World of Monty and Rose" makes its debut on Sept. 4 at Chicago's Music Box Theatre. This is an hour-long, supersized version of the first film, with more interviews, new characters, new storylines and much more in the way of Piping Plover footage. Join us for the premiere or at the second showing on Sept. 6. a portion of proceeds from ticket sales go to the nonprofit Chicago Ornithological Society.