Welcome to This Week in Birding! How we can expand the protected area at Montrose Beach Dunes

A call-to-action as rare habitat inundated by rising Lake Michigan water levels; One year since Piping Plover Day; How to find a mixed species flock in a Midwest woodland

In birding lingo, an ephemeral wetland is often referred to as a fluddle—a portmanteau of flood and puddle. The most well-known fluddle in the Chicago region has been standing on Montrose Beach the past two summers. That’s where Piping Plovers Monty and Rose have been feeding with their young, finding a rich assortment of invertebrates for their diet. Monty and Rose became famous in 2019, both because they were the first Piping Plovers to nest in Chicago since 1955 and because their presence was a factor in the cancellation of a lakefront music festival. (I made a documentary about the birds and am currently working on a second one.)

The water in the fluddle flows south away from Lake Michigan and through a panne habitat in Montrose Beach Dunes, a state natural area. It leaves the protected dune area and runs onto a portion of beach that’s been used by volleyball leagues before the pandemic. It’s in that section of beach that the plovers and their three chicks spent much of the summer of 2020. The Chicago Park District and wildlife officials roped off the area this year

Volunteer site steward Leslie Borns is credited with making Montrose Beach Dunes into what it is today, a globally rare ecosystem harboring several state- and federally listed plant species. She wrote an email to volunteers last week sharing that she’s asked the Park District to add the Piping Plover foraging area—including the fluddle—to the protected habitat at Montrose. Rising Lake Michigan water levels and accompanying erosion have reduced the dunes site from 14 to nine acres in recent years. There also is work needed to keep the area from becoming overgrown. “Given formal protection as part of the dune habitat, it will be much easier to manage,” Leslie told me, “and it is obvious that the area is no longer suitable for active recreational use.” Volleyball players are aware of the situation and many have been supportive of piping plover protection efforts, Leslie says. 

There are a number of commercial and recreational interests at Montrose Beach, the biggest and perhaps most visited in Chicago. But protected lakefront natural areas are scarce. Expanded critical habitat would be a win for plovers, other shorebirds and an array of rare wetland flora, and might just be the home to Monty and Rose for many years to come.

You can read Leslie’s message and contact the Park District by clicking here. I mentioned this on Sunday on The Mike Nowak Show, and you can check out that interview here.

The first anniversary of Illinois Piping Plover Day, release of “Monty and Rose,” and a matching gift opportunity

We released “Monty and Rose,” a film about Chicago’s piping plovers, one year ago today at the historic Music Box Theatre. The release came on the same date declared Illinois Piping Plover Day by Gov. J.B. Pritzker. It feels like a long time ago, but I am so glad we had that time together and for all the showings we had before Covid!

I also received the news last week that “Monty and Rose 2” has been selected for an Illinois Arts Council grant, which is a tremendous validation of all that has gone into this project. While the grant will help us with additional post-production, including animation, captioning and more, we still need support to reach the original project goal. A generous donor has kindly offered to match donations up to $1,000 between now and Thanksgiving. That means any gift in the next week will be doubled in value. If you haven’t seen it yet, we have some amazing footage already taken for this next film. With your support, we can reach our fundraising goal and complete this second film!

Tonight I’ll be live on Facebook at 7:30 providing a more detailed update on “Monty and Rose 2.” We have a few other surprises in store, too, and a few stories from travels around Lake Michigan for filming. I hope you can join us!

When in doubt, follow the chickadees

On Oct. 10, I was making my way through western Michigan as part of filming interviews for “Monty and Rose 2.” I hadn't actually looked for birds on the trip so I took my chances and stopped at Loda Lake Wildflower Sanctuary, just off the road to White Cloud (the only national wildflower sanctuary in a U.S national forest, I’d later find out). Here, pink lady’s slipper and star flower dot the rolling terrain around the eponymous lake, a pothole left by the last glaciation. The property had been a retreat for a wealthy Chicago family and their son-in-law Albert Schmidt, who eventually joined with the Santa Fe Impressionists in New Mexico. Before that it was the ancestral and rightful home of the Council of the Three Fires, the Odawa, Ojibwe and Potawatomi. 

It was a relatively warm fall day, the sun shining brightly and the landscape mostly yellows and reds. The peaceful setting only interrupted by the occasional ATV engine and the distant sound of a shotgun. I had the sanctuary to myself. I didn't detect much bird life, though, and was ready to call it a day. That's when I heard a Black-capped Chickadee call. Interesting, I thought, chickadees often attract other species during migration, forming little mixed flocks as they move through the woods.  

I strained to see the chickadees—they weren’t making it easy—before I heard a lilting high-pitched call. Bingo. A Brown Creeper was working its way high up in a hickory. Again, it was very high up—these birds weren’t making it easy. A couple minutes later, a bird smaller than a chickadee flits out for an insect, high up still. I’m thinking ‘kinglet,’ and make out that it doesn’t have a mask like a chickadee and has a greenish-gray tone. Then it’s on to whether it’s a Golden-crowned or Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and I note a black crown stripe and a dash of yellow, almost more of a feeling of yellow or an expectation of yellow than an actual ID of yellow. And soon enough, a White-breasted Nuthatch calls and briefly appears. I declare mixed-flock success and head back to the parking lot.  

I left with the thought of how absurdly small and fragile these birds are in this brutish world we call 2020. We could all use more tranquility in our lives and can take solace in the presence of a few chickadees.