UPTOWN — Last summer, Chicago’s beloved piping plovers had all of Montrose Beach to use as their nesting ground thanks to coronavirus restrictions that closed off the city’s beaches.
But with the expected return this spring of the Great Lakes piping plovers — and the return to more normal lakefront activity — neighbors and bird enthusiasts are asking the city to safeguard the birds’ favored nesting ground by incorporating it into the nearby nature preserve.
A group of birders has petitioned the Chicago Park District to add the easternmost portion of Montrose Beach to the neighboring Dunes Natural Area, a protected portion of the lakefront. WTTW first reported on the request.
The proposal would add about just over an acre of beach space to the natural dunes area, which is accessible to the public but shielded from the recreation of the nearby beach.
“It’s such a treasure to have these birds want to nest in the city,” said Bob Dolgan, a documentary filmmaker and Uptown-based bird watcher. “It would be ideal to have this protected area there and waiting for them.”
Park District officials are considering the plan, a spokesperson said.
In 2019, piping plover couple Monty and Rose chose to mate at Montrose Beach, just next to the dunes preserve. It was the first time federally protected, endangered piping plovers had chosen to nest in Chicago since 1955.
The birds’ nesting area set off a conservation effort, which caused beach volleyball games to be relocated and a music festival to be canceled.
The migratory Monty and Rose returned to Montrose Beach in spring 2020. They nested in the protected dune area but foraged in the beach area that in normal years hosts volleyball and other recreation.
With lakefront parks closed for months in the spring and summer, Monty, Rose and their four chicks had the beach free of humans.
But upon the birds’ expected return this year, the beach will likely be more active.
Leslie Borns, who coordinates volunteer and conservation efforts at Montrose Harbor, has twice met with Park District officials on the request, she said.
Borns is hopeful the situation can be resolved by the time Monty and Rose return, which is usually around early May. Supporters of the proposal spoke at December’s meeting of the Park District board.
Park District spokeswoman Michele Lemons said the agency is considering the request and, like in years prior, is committed to protecting the migratory piping plovers upon their return.
“The Montrose Beach Dunes and adjacent natural area at Montrose Point are uniquely important for both wildlife habitat and for people to access nature in our city, and we remain committed to their care and protection,” Lemons said in a statement.
Borns’ proposal calls for adding the beach area immediately south of the dunes to the nature preserve. The westernmost border of the dunes preserve would be extended south to the sidewalk, incorporating a rectangular portion of beach space that does not front the lake.
“The area encompasses the habitat used during the most critical phases of breeding, brooding and rearing of the piping plover chicks,” Borns wrote in her newsletter on the preservation efforts. “There is universal agreement that it’s a great idea and long overdue.”
The proposal would add to a relatively new lakefront natural preserve, albeit one that has grown into a precious ecosystem home to rare species, including the piping plovers.
In 2001, the Park District stopped grooming the easternmost portion of the beach, allowing native species to take root.
The dunes area was expanded by 1.3 acres in 2011, according to the Park District. Rising Lake Michigan levels have trimmed the natural area from 14 acres to about 9 acres, Borns said. Still, the site supports six threatened native plant species and many animal species, including plovers and bank swallow birds.
The return of such species has transformed the former beach space into a panne habitat, a rare form of wetlands set upon a dune area.
But the area abuts one of the city’s largest and most popular beaches.
Like the natural preserve, Montrose and elsewhere in the city have lost beachfront to the rising Lake Michigan. That puts beach space at a premium in the city. That particular area of Montrose Beach is routinely used for things like volleyball and equipment rental.
“Recreational space at all of our beaches, including Montrose Beach, has been reduced by high Lake Michigan water levels,” Lemons said.
Birders think there is enough room to accommodate lakefront recreation and the chosen piping plover nesting ground.
“It makes sense to prioritize an endangered bird species, especially one that has demonstrated repeated yearly success at Montrose Beach Dunes,” Borns said in her newsletter. “Suitable places for larger recreational uses can be found.”
More natural areas at Montrose could help endangered species and beach revelers, in that native species reduce beach erosion and loss to the rising lake, Dolgan said.
“Montrose dunes have really grown to become an incredible natural habitat,” he said. “It makes sense to continue to expand and protect this area.”
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