Birders mourn Monty the piping plover: ‘I never thought it would end so abruptly’

Their story was filled with drama, anchored by hope and, depending on who you asked, one ultimately about love.

But it was never going to last forever.

Monty, one half of Chicago’s endangered Great Lakes piping plover pair, died Friday at Montrose Beach. It was his fourth summer in the North Side sand. He was still waiting on the return of his mate, Rose.

“I used to joke that I’d be a decade older and still coordinating the effort,” said lo Itani, an Illinois Ornithological Society member who has kept watch over the birds for years. “I did not think it would last that long in reality but I also never thought it would end so abruptly.”

In some ways, Monty seemed invincible, Itani said. He could clear out killdeer. He could dodge a peregrine falcon. She had seen him earlier this week, watching him through a scope as a few hours flew by. She said she’ll miss hearing his piping sound at Montrose.

“It was so sudden, so unexpected,” Itani said. “We were a little bit worried about Rose, not Monty.”

After three summers of fledging chicks together, Rose still had not arrived from the Florida island where she winters. In a final attempt to make sense out of the breeding of two birds, some said Monty did not want to go on without his partner.

Through the years, the daily battles of Monty and Rose played out in the sand alongside volleyballs, skunks and storms. From the beginning, the odds stacked against the birds were as lofty as the skyline behind them. In their first summer, they overcame a potential beachside EDM festival. Between their thousand-mile migrations were more challenges: the loss of nests, the death of chicks, predators with an appetite for plovers.

Time and again the little birds emerged resilient, and often victorious. Chicagoans showed up day after day at Montrose to keep an eye on Monty and Rose, who came to represent far more than most things that can fit in your hand ever do.

Chicago has perhaps never been so sad about the death of a bird. On Saturday, many were still in disbelief. Some conversations ended in tears.

“To hear the news was absolutely shocking,” said Itani, who had to make a few calls before the news sank in. “I was hoping they would say, he’s just passed out.”

On Saturday, the binocular-clad gaggle you’d expect to see near the Montrose habitat was nowhere to be found. A baseball hat embroidered with the birds hung near the spot where Monty suddenly became ill – and one birder found herself facing a situation no one expected.

Daniela Herrera, who monitored the plovers in previous summerslooked out on the Montrose habitat, where she watched Monty take his final breaths.

“You watch the entire life-cycle of a bird,” Herrera said. “I’ll miss them. And they’ll have a special place in my heart, always. ”

Herrera had watched the birds on hot days and in the middle of foraging. On Friday she noticed Monty acting in a way she’d never seen before. She appeared to be falling over, and the behavior was unusual enough that she made a few calls to alert others.

After one fall, he didn’t get back up.

“Everything went blank,” said Herrera, who then had to share the news with birders who came to see Monty in action and instead saw his small body, lifeless in the sand.

Herrera said she was happy to have monitored the birds, and as one of the few volunteers who speaks Spanish, lend her binoculars and share their story with families throughout the city who might otherwise not hear it.

“It’s kind of wild to think about how connected people got to these little birds,” Herrera said.

But, she said, “In the end, nature will have its final say.”

Great Lakes plovers live about five years on average. Some can go on to live another decade or so, but threats are ever-present.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service stepped in Friday to take Monty’s body to the Lincoln Park Zoo for testing. Eventually, he may end up in a museum.

Although the birds will be missed, those who have looked after them want their lessons about conservation and habitat restoration to remain. Great Lakes piping plovers were once down to about a dozen nesting pairs. Last year, there were 74.

“I hope that people through Monty and Rose realize how important it is to carve out a bit of space for piping plovers, for shorebirds, for other wildlife,” Itani said. “I totally believe that it is our obligation to continue to make sure they exist.”

As for Rose, the longer she’s gone, the less likely she’ll return. Some plovers take a nesting season off, but it’s rare. If she isn’t seen again and confirmed through her banding, her fate may remain unknown.

Jillian Farkas, the Great Lakes piping plover recovery coordinator with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, said there’s still a chance Rose could make an appearance, but it’s unlikely.

“It’s devastating that we’ve lost Monty, but it’s almost an easier pill to swallow since Rose also isn’t back,” she said. “Unfortunately this is part of the process. And it’s why recovery is so important. Every plover does matter. ”

A celebration of the birds’ lives is in the works.

“I’m forever going to be grateful to them for the joy they brought us,” Itani said. “It’s a unique experience we’ve had.”


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