Prepare for Glory!

The time has come everybody, brace yourselves for the epic conclusion of the 2021 Bird Life List goal.

First I want to thank everyone for their encouragement to help me get through the ’21 goals. Just to bring the non-regular readers up to speed, I figured I would have some extra time on my hands in my first year of retirement – for the record I am not convinced that actually materialized as it feels busier these days than I would have ever imagined. Regardless, when the idea originated I set a goal to up my birding life list to 300. Ended up being easier to declare than execute, but the fallout at Dauphin Island was the savior for this effort. Not entirely sure I would have gotten anywhere close without that trip and the January trip down the Texas Gulf Coast at the beginning of the year. You have been getting a steady diet of spoils from those trips over the last several months.

It is now time to officially confirm that I have indeed made it to the 300th bird on my life list and it is time to reveal the feathered friend that has been selected to honor this historic landmark… hmmmm.. should probably refer to it as a historic “checkmark” ha!

Go on, don’t be afraid, hit the jump to meet the famous bird(s).

Famous Piping Plovers at Montrose Beach, Chicago IL in August 2021

Ta da! Maybe you were expecting something more colorful, perhaps more stoic or physically larger than this little guy that tops out a diminutive 7 inches and 1.8 or so ounces. Granted, I might have set those expectations when I went with the Great Kiskadee for my 200th entry (link here). That one was colorful, medium sized and produces a racket that could revive a dead Chicago voter. Today’s specimen(s) does/do not have those attention getting physical characteristics. What it does have is worldwide recognition and a following that can put a lot of rock stars to shame. Yep, this bird is FAMOUS!

First a little apology/excuse regarding today’s series. For a significant milestone I would have liked to bring you technical quality worthy of the moment. That didn’t happen and I will admit there was some debate whether I try to find another option and leave this check for next year’s goal. The fan base for this bird won out – Ron would say the birder in me out-voted the photographer for a change. In my defense I was dealing with these conditions.

Famous Piping Plovers at Montrose Beach, Chicago IL in August 2021

Yes, the itty, bitty spec you can just barely see in the center of the image was what I was trying to keep The Beast targeted on – handheld as I was thinking I would be closer to the subject – will haul the tripod out the next time I’m there, but in truth not sure it would have helped. The place was Montrose Beach in Chicago, IL and it sits on the waterfront of Lake Michigan. For a three years this bird has been reuniting with his mate on these protected sand dunes. Those lucky enough to have access to large glass are already painfully aware of the technical issues related to photographing in these heat generating conditions. Unless you get there early before the sun has a chance to warm up the sand, you have to fight the dreaded heat foils that drive cameras bat-shit crazy. Ron and I arrived at Montrose in the early afternoon. The day turned overcast while we were shooting, but it was too late to compensate for the mirages the focus meters were picking up. I tried my best to clean that up in the digital darkroom – impossible to make a bad shot good, but I was able to make them slightly better than a finger painting. With that caveat out of the way, let’s get to the details about our famous Plover.

Famous Piping Plovers at Montrose Beach, Chicago IL in August 2021

More specifically, you are looking at a Piping Plover and unlike every other bird that has been featured hear at Intrigued, this one has an official name. Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce Monty. This fluffy guy has been coming to Montrose beach since the summer of 2019 and has resulted in quite a stir in the birding community as the Piping Plover is categorized as an endangered species. He is part of the 65-70 nesting pairs across the Great Lakes region – a slight recovery if you will from the 1990 low point of 13 pairs. When Monty showed up with his mate Rose the birding communities went to work immediately in insuring their safety and rolling out the red carpet.

Famous Piping Plovers at Montrose Beach, Chicago IL in August 2021

This pair has been living in the limelight ever since. You might have missed their clever naming – Monty and Rose… Montrose Beach… Ron was shocked I missed that completely when I first heard about the pair. They now have their own website (link here) and their own Facebook page (link here) – no, Zuckerberg you don’t get to take a term we’ve been using in IT since I entered the business and try to rebrand your failing company with it. These birds even have their own merchandise and “groupies” that keep a nearly constant eye on them during their nesting and fledgling season.

Famous Piping Plovers at Montrose Beach, Chicago IL in August 2021

While I’m here should probably note that banding birds provides a lot of scientific advantages, but thinking this a bit ridiculous on poor Monty here – at least 5 tags that I can tell from the shot above.

Monty and Rose have had a few setbacks over the years, but have managed to bring up the struggling Piping population with now 7 additional members – their website referenced above is well done and has a lot of information on their background and the multiple documentaries that have been made about them. On their first attempt this year, their nest was attacked by a Skunk and all the eggs fell victim. A groupie must have been asleep at the wheel.

Famous Piping Plovers at Montrose Beach, Chicago IL in August 2021

Undeterred, Monty and Rose changed their nest site and tried again. The nest are pretty much just scrapes or depressions in the open dunes, however, steps were taken to try and prevent the predator incident from happening again (more on this in a bit). The pair were much more successful in this second attempt and brought four new chicks into the world. From the moment the pair lays their eggs, life becomes very busy for these Plovers. For the small size they are very aggressive in defending their territory within means of course – a Skunk isn’t going to care much about a pissed off bird. Monty and Rose would basically attack any other bird that ventured too close and that includes the larger Gulls that are prevalent in that area. Add in the Owls and Raptors that find their way from time to time and quickly realize what a miracle it is that any survive at all, especially with the small numbers in their clutch.

Famous Piping Plovers at Montrose Beach, Chicago IL in August 2021

I am sorry to relay that two of the four chicks probably did not make it. They lost sight of two and never located them, likely being taken by the many predators in the area. The other two were doing amazing well and still there when Ron offered to take me up there in August of this year. The hardest part is trying to find them. They have roped off a large part of the dunes to protect them and help keep them from becoming stressed by their hordes of fans – they even managed to expand the footprint of the protected dunes through the addition of 3 acres back in April of this year which included some sand volleyball courts that were right on the edge of their original protected area. Stray volleyballs were a constant concern before getting that extra buffer from the city.

I noted above that there were multiple specimens featured in this post – that would be the remaining adult and at least one chick/juvi. Luckily the Piping Plover breeding adults have a very noticeable black collar (often broken) on their neck and a black bar/crown above their eyes that distinguished them from the juvis. Cornell mentions their bill will turn orange with a black tip during breeding season – did not notice this while in the field.

Famous Piping Plovers at Montrose Beach, Chicago IL in August 2021

And now for the juvi! Didn’t think I would leave you hanging with just the adult when the kids become the star of the show when they make it this far. Notice the lack of the black collar and crown and the bill is definitely all black.

Famous Piping Plovers at Montrose Beach, Chicago IL in August 2021

Looks like they gave the juvis three bands. Those responsible for their conservation will approach their protective fencing around their nest, capture chicks and band them when they get to an appropriate age. Ron was chatting up the two ladies who had watch duties the day and learned that Monty and Rose do not appreciate this encroachment on their nest one bit being quite vocal with their high pitched “piping” call.

Famous Piping Plovers at Montrose Beach, Chicago IL in August 2021

To pat Ron and I’s backs a bit, we were the first to locate these birds for the spotters. The spotters were quite relieved that they were found as it was getting just about time for them to head to their wintering grounds. Rose had already departed earlier in the week and there was thoughts Monty would be doing the same very soon. Nothing like cutting it razor thin close to get these famous birds in the tin. The day we were there was going to be the last day for watch duties. They were going to be on their own from that point forward until their hopeful return next year.

Famous Piping Plovers at Montrose Beach, Chicago IL in August 2021

You might find it interesting that Monty and Rose do not winter in the same location. Rose spends her nonbreeding days on Anclote Key located 3 miles off the coast of Tarpon Springs, Florida. Monty prefers the Bolivar Flats area along the Texas Gulf Coast. What seems absolutely amazing to me is the pair will show up at Montrose within days of each other (literally within hours of each other in 2020 and within a day this year) – clearly they have cell phones tucked away in that fluff somewhere – “Hey Rose, feeling a little frisky, how about we meet up in our special place. Sure Monty, let me pack the travel suitcase and I’ll see you there .. hugs and pecks.”

Famous Piping Plovers at Montrose Beach, Chicago IL in August 2021

In 2020, Monty and Rose arrived from their separate wintering grounds and successfully fledged three chicks which were given the names Hazel, Nish and Esperanza – name that don’t roll off the tongue like Monty and Rose – they were named after an environment activist (Hazel), the word for “hope” (Esperanza) and Nish is in honor of the Potawatomi heritage of Montrose. Last year Nish showed up with his mother Rose in Florida and the other two picked the Georgia coast for their wintering grounds. Note, Nish was able to fledge 4 chicks at Maumee Bay located on Lake Erie in Ohio.

Famous Piping Plovers at Montrose Beach, Chicago IL in August 2021

The 2020 chicks were named by a restrictive set of voters, Monty and Rose’s two surviving chicks from this year’s brood were named through a local community competition helping to feed the popularity of their local heroes and spread the excitement of birding and conservation in general. The two winning names were Imani and Siewka (and I thought the last set of names was obscure). The one you are looking at (at least the one below) is Imani (meaning faith in Swahili) identified by its yellow star on the upper right leg band.

Famous Piping Plovers at Montrose Beach, Chicago IL in August 2021

Siewka (pronounced as Shivka) has similar placement of the metal and colored bands. To differentiate, Siewka has a green star on its upper right leg vs the yellow star of its nest mate. A little bit of a gripe here, but would have it killed them to maybe switched the order of the colored band placements so I don’t have to try and figure out a relatively tiny distinction in their label symbols!?! I painstakingly went through shot after shot and wasn’t able to find an image with the green star marking.

Famous Piping Plovers at Montrose Beach, Chicago IL in August 2021

This post is going long – blaming the incredible backstory on these celebrities. Still want to point out a few interesting behavior related elements for these Chicago Plovers. When Monty and Rose finally choose their nesting location, make their surface depression and lay their eggs, the conservation group erects a protective cage around it. This helps to reduce some of the predator dangers on the beach. The shot below is this year’s cage – not sure if it was improved after the Skunk managed to reach through it the first time.

Famous Piping Plovers at Montrose Beach, Chicago IL in August 2021

Another thing to note is Piping Plovers guard their nest and chicks with absolute commitment. The parents are constantly spending energy to ward off intruders of which there are plenty on the Montrose dunes. Although the distance apart was beyond my depth of field, cropped this shot larger to give you a feel for the relative size of the Plover to more common birds. The bird directly behind Monty is a Killdeer and the visually much larger bird further back is a Gull. As good parents will, Monty and Rose will defend their territory no matter what size they come up against.

Famous Piping Plovers at Montrose Beach, Chicago IL in August 2021

Monty was putting on quite the show of this protective nature while we were there. If it spotted anything in their sand yard it would immediately stop what it was doing and stare at it assessing the danger. Almost certain I saw Monty use the devil horns back and forth from eyes to intruder “I got my eyes on you featherhead!”

Famous Piping Plovers at Montrose Beach, Chicago IL in August 2021

Again, sorry, for the depth issue, but Monty was not pleased when this Spotted Sandpiper started foraging near where Imani was hanging out.

Famous Piping Plovers at Montrose Beach, Chicago IL in August 2021

“Hey, you, Spotty- yes you, you even look funny at my kid and I’ll smack the living daylights out of you so hard your spots will fly off. Don’t make me come over there or I’ll wring that skinny neck of yours – now be gone!” Apparently Monty has been learning up on the old Chicago mob bosses.

Famous Piping Plovers at Montrose Beach, Chicago IL in August 2021

The Sandpiper ended up retreating to the top of a nesting box near where Ron and I were standing. The Killdeer above didn’t get the message and almost lost some tail feathers as a result.

I did try really, really hard to get a picture of the chick flying. Imani preferred to simply run from place to place rather then fly, typical of Plover behavior. They are very nimble on the ground which translates to a nightmare for The Beast. Did find this attempt – could be trying to fly, might be practicing its wing at defending a future nest or …wait, think it is calling Monty over to beat me up – might be time to go Ron.

Famous Piping Plovers at Montrose Beach, Chicago IL in August 2021

Leaving you one more craptastically fuzzy shot. It looked like the chick was practicing a technique more commonly used by the Killdeer to redirect intruders away from their nests – the broken wing scam. Was not able to confirm whether Piping Plovers use this similar deception – if so, this chick has it down!

Famous Piping Plovers at Montrose Beach, Chicago IL in August 2021

There you have it folks – officially my 300th entry on my life bird list. Hope you enjoyed seeing and reading about the pride of Chicago’s beach. Our tax evading governor even declared November 18th to be the annual Illinois Piping Plover Day. As if that isn’t enough fanfare, they even have their own beer – Piping Plover Pale Ale from Imperial Oak Brewing in Willow Springs (link here). Clearly a fitting subject for my day of glory.

A big thanks to Ron for hosting me that day – he is now two for three with the last being the Monk Parakeet (link here). We shall not speak of the Ross’ Goose hehehe.

Take care everyone and if I don’t get back to you before the official holiday – have a very merry and SAFE Christmas.

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