Skip to main content

Piping Plovers on Chicago’s Montrose Beach

GLRI sign on beach

(Dec. 3, 2019) After two months we can finally breathe sighs of relief that our plover friends have begun the next step in their journey: heading south for the winter.

On June 11, a call for assistance went out to the U. S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services (USDA WS) from the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR). Help was needed to monitor and protect the pair of federally endangered Great Lakes Piping Plovers nesting on Montrose beach in Chicago.

With funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, USDA WS collaborated with the two agencies to provide camera traps, also known as trail cameras. These motion-activated cameras monitor nests for potential threats to these birds, which chose to nest on one of the busiest beaches in Chicago.

Trail camera overlooking Great Lakes piping plovers near nest exclosure.

USFWS and IDNR had already implemented procedures to protect these tiny birds' nest, using a one-foot by two-feet woven wire exclosure and a two-strand rope fence to keep potential predators and humans away.

USDA WS installed a camera trap at the initial nest site to monitor for potential nest predators daily from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., when the nearly 200 volunteer Plover Watchers were unavailable. This method used infrared optics to “see” in the dark. It also immediately sent activity alerts via smartphone to wildlife biologists to warn them of any potential risks to the nest.

On the night of June 12, 2019, with crashing waves and rising waters encroaching on the nest, USFWS and IDNR made the decision to relocate the four tiny eggs from the sandy substrate to a licensed wildlife rehabilitation facility to be incubated and reared. After the eggs were removed, agency staff and volunteers continued to observe the two adult piping plovers. Soon the pair began searching for another suitable nest site. Staff left that evening hopeful that our little friends would move to higher ground and once again nest on Montrose Beach. Throughout the night, water levels continued to rise and flooded the beach, covering the nest site with water. Thankfully, the four original eggs were relocated, and the two adults had abandoned the nesting site. 

Trail camera view from second trail camera.

Several days later the pair of piping plovers selected Montrose Beach once again for their second nesting site, this time on higher ground, well away from the floodplain. USDA WS was asked again to deploy camera traps to monitor for potential threats to the nest. Animals captured on-camera passing by the nest included a dog, ring-billed gulls, herring gulls, American crows, raccoons, and skunks. IDNR and USFWS biologists determined that though these animals were near the nest, none had become aggressive towards the plovers, so further protection actions were not warranted.

Night after night, biologists watched the pictures trickle in on their smartphones until, lo and behold, the first egg hatched. After a short time, three of the four eggs had hatched successfully. Not long after hatching, one of the chicks became weak and died due to indeterminable causes. The remaining two chicks continued eating and growing. 

Night after night the cameras stood watch. Once the chicks were on the move, the daytime observers shifted their attention to potential predators flying overhead. More than 180 volunteers watched ring-billed gulls, herring gulls, great blue herons, raptors, American crows and killdeer frequenting Montrose Beach near the nest during the day.

Adult and juvenile Great Lakes piping plovers.

USDA WS assisted the monitors in exploring options for dispersing the gulls. The most successful and adaptable method turned out to be instructing the volunteer monitors to clap and wave, impeding gulls from reaching the plover family. This was continued, as needed, until the chicks were large enough to no longer be at risk from gull predation. 

As part of another GLRI-funded project improving water quality on Chicago’s beaches, USDA WS monitors the abundance of gulls on Montrose Beach. USDA WS biologists therefore had ample opportunities to help monitor the nesting piping plovers and to interact with volunteers and members of the public, often answering questions and sharing a view through a spotting scope. 

When the Great Lakes Piping Plover program experts learned that a pair of killdeer were nesting near the piping plover nest, they advised intervening. Killdeer nesting near plovers on other Great Lakes beaches have killed piping plover chicks as the killdeer eggs neared hatching. IDNR and USDA WS worked carefully to remove and transfer the killdeer eggs to a licensed wildlife rehabilitation facility and place clay decoy eggs back into the killdeer nest. When one of the killdeer parents did not leave the area, the decision was made to nonlethally remove the killdeer that continued to incubate the clay eggs. A live trap was used to capture the killdeer, which was taken to reside at the same licensed rehabber as their eggs. They were later released together at another suitable location.

Skunk captured on camera trap.

The days and nights went by until mother, then father, and finally the two piping plover chicks left the beach to migrate south. Unfortunately, the four plover eggs taken to a rehabber did not hatch. This is, however, the first time piping plovers have successfully fledged on Chicago’s busy Montrose Beach since 1955.

 A GLRI sign at Montrose was used by thousands of beachgoers throughout the summer as a guidepost for locating the foraging plovers and later, their adorable chicks, and to observe the plovers with the assistance of the volunteer monitors. 

USFWS Chicago Field Offce Species Spotlight on the piping plover