Will the Chicago Park District expand rare habitat at Montrose Beach?

Educator and students make the case for the benefits of the 9-acre patch of dunes and swales—for people, plants and animals alike

A lot can be said for Montrose Beach Dunes as a natural area, so much so that I made a film about the Piping Plovers there and am working on a second. It’s the only Illinois Natural Areas Inventory site on the North Side and harbors 28 state-listed plant species and 18 state-listed bird species. It’s home to a globally rare panne ecosystem and, for the past two years, plovers Monty and Rose and two broods of chicks.

Let’s just talk about this 9-acre oasis in terms of people, in a year when the natural world is one of the few bits of normalcy we have left. And set aside for now whether lakefront parkland really has been open. After all it’s largely people—and largely volunteers—who have made the dunes into what they are today.

“I’ve had some volunteers say it’s their church,” longtime volunteer site steward Leslie Borns told me in September. “It’s a deeply spiritual experience and very rewarding.”

In the urban landscape of Chicago, a tiny eden like Montrose Beach Dunes takes on outsized importance. Just listen to the words of Pete Leki, director of ecology programs at Waters Elementary School. Pete shared these remarks at Wednesday’s Chicago Park District Board of Commissioners monthly meeting. Waters students have studied the dunes and volunteered there.

“A basic concept of ecology that I teach is that natural areas in our highly developed region act like islands. And we know that islands that are bigger and closer to each other are more likely to sustain biodiversity than islands that are small and farther apart. So we support every effort to expand the ‘islands,’ the natural areas, to improve the odds that diverse life will find refuge there.”

Pete and Waters students volunteered at the dunes recently and created a neat video about the experience. It’s worth watching.

Then there’s the justifiable fears from the 7th and 8th graders at Waters about climate change and what it will do to the world they inherit. Said Mr. Leki:

“Our students, in their many messages to the CPD Board express great anxiety that the small enclaves of natural areas that support species like the Piping Plovers  (and many other threatened species) may not be there in the future. Their future. Their future planet may be bereft of the treasures of evolution and biodiversity because we have failed to protect habitat, and halt climate catastrophe.”

Pete and others spoke at the meeting in support of a modest habitat expansion at Montrose Beach Dunes. There’s interest in adding a few acres to the dunes’ southwest quadrant, where a few unique shoreline plant species have sprung up. Rising Lake Michigan water levels have eaten away at the land at Montrose, and there’s less room for the array of state and federally listed plants, which also create a natural erosion buffer. The Piping Plovers have made great use of the southwest area the past two years and are likely to return again, along with Killdeer and Sora. Another declining species, the Bank Swallow, nests in a colony there, too. So it makes sense to grant the area extra protection. Further, the continued maintenance in the area, for plovers and swallows alike, will most likely be handled by volunteers.

Now back to the people. I shared some of my thoughts in a bonus post Wednesday. But here are the words of 10th grader Simon Tolzmann, a member of the Illinois Young Birders Club and plover monitor who also spoke at the meeting to call for the protection of the southwest corner of the dunes.

“My whole life Montrose Beach Dunes has been a place of exploration and comfort and sanctuary from the hardships of the real world,” said Simon. “I’ve spent countless hours birding, caring for, protecting and advocating for that area.”

And if that wasn’t enough, here’s Simon's brother, Peter, a 6th grader.

“The more space the animals get the better chances are they survive. The more habitat birds have, the more they will nest, the more habitat for plants the more they will spread."

In a city where none of the natural shoreline remains, here is a patch of land that bears some resemblance to it. Here’s to hoping that the Park District will protect this additional habitat. For plovers and humans alike.

If you are interested in advocating for the expansion of Montrose Beach Dunes, there is contact information in this call-to-action from steward Leslie Borns.

A walk in the owly woods

I was sitting in my back yard on Thanksgiving night when I saw what appeared to be a large bird fly right down my street. I’ve had the thought that our neighborhood might be a good one for Great Horned Owls, with a forest preserve nearby and plenty of mature trees. I also thought I glimpsed one on an evening a couple months ago. I stood up and walked in the direction of where it had disappeared, and sure enough a Great Horned Owl swooped across the street and onto a neighbor's rooftop a few doors down. Here’s what I saw:

I watched it for a while—and it watched me—before it took off into the neighborhood.

This got me thinking more about owls, so I’ve been re-reading a brilliant little book called “How to Spot an Owl” by Patricia and Clay Sutton. I believe it’s out of print, but a few are available on Amazon.

The Suttons discuss the concept of “getting owly.” Here's how they describe it:

“Even to a seasoned owler, it may take some time to get into the right frame of mind for a successful day’s owling. The mind needs to be emptied out—tasks and distractions must be forgotten. You must be fully focused on the owly woods you’re exploring.”

This means checking every tree from every angle for nests and cavities. It also means searching for pellets and whitewash under evergreens and tangles.

My other takeaway has to do with how important it is to get into the woods early, right at first light or sunrise. I’ve noticed how many more birds are around, viewable or within earshot, on the weekday mornings at my nearest preserve, versus, say, a weekend afternoon. The Suttons underscore this and describe discovering many owls right near walking paths at sunrise. After all, the owls will have disappeared on a well-traveled path as the day wears on.

I took an owly walk on Wednesday morning. I was surprised at how many cavities I found when I intentionally started looking for them. I didn’t see or hear any owls, or any signs of them, but it was a great way to experience the woods. It has me wondering what I may see as I look more closely in the future.

TWiB Notes

“Earth At Night in Color” is a docuseries that will be released today on AppleTV+. The Peregrine Falcons of Downtown Chicago are featured in a forthcoming episode. This looks like a series very much worth watching.….A Great Kiskadee appeared briefly in southwest suburban Channahon this week. It could be the first state record of this Central and South American species. The Forest Preserve District of Will County has a nice summary of that sighting and others…..Woody Goss has put together this incredibly handy guide to fall/winter calls of Chicagoland birds, including several of the less-familiar winter finches I wrote about on Monday…..The Sandhill Crane count at Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in northern Indiana is all the way up to 30,701, almost double from just a couple weeks ago. If you haven’t seen our 1-minute video clip from the site, click here…..Openlands’ Birds in My Neighborhood program is looking for educators interested in joining the program to teach their students to be birders. There’s an information session on Tuesday at 4 p.m. Sign up here.

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