Magic at Montrose: Chicago’s bird-watching hotspot
“The Magic Hedge” at Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary is called that for a reason.
What started as a row of honeysuckle shrubs along a fence has grown into a long stretch of trees, plants and other greenery — a perfect spot for the masses of birds passing through Chicago to rest and feed during migration seasons.
Andrea Tolzmann and her kids often rush to Montrose Beach with their cameras and binoculars early in the morning before virtual school begins. They rely on group chats and social media pages for alerts about rare bird sightings.
“We were like, it’s early, we have an hour and a half before school starts. Let’s run over to Montrose,” said Tolzmann, 47.
Tolzmann got her love for birds from her father and passed it on to sons Peter, 12, and Simon, 16. They joined Illinois Young Birders five years ago.
The family is part of Chicago’s birder community, a group bonded by a hobby that spans generations and skill levels.
“It’s a really collaborative community. There’s a lot of friendship and sharing of information, and that makes it a really great community to be a part of,” Tolzmann said.
It’s the birders who look out for Monty and Rose, the pair of piping plovers nesting at Montrose Beach. It’s the birders who organize educational walks with experts to observe birds in their natural habitat. And it’s the birders who try to educate the general public about being bird friendly.
“I have met people birding all around Chicago this year who told me that they started birding because they went to see Monty and Rose in 2019,” said Louise Clemency, field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chicago office.
The plover pair showed up in April this year, marking their third year at the beach. They made headlines when three of their chicks hatched at the beach in 2019. It was the birders, again, who helped force the cancellation of a music festival at the beach that year to protect the nest.
“They’ve been wonderful ambassadors to really get people to stop momentarily and reflect just how important this lakeshore is,” said Brad Semel, an endangered species recovery specialist.
“This little postage stamp of a beach and all the endangered plants and animals that are here are really representative of what all of the Great Lakes are,” he said.
A group of birders were out at the beach again one recent morning, checking on the plovers and looking for other birds. Tamima Itani of the Illinois Ornithological Society was with them.
“No piping plovers had fledged chicks in Chicago or Cook County in 71 years, so no one thought they would nest here,” said Itani, the society’s vice president and treasurer.
Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary ranks first on eBird’s top spots in Chicago, followed by Illinois Beach State Park and Jackson Park.
This past April, the Chicago Park District expanded the Montrose Beach Dunes Natural Area, adding 3.1 acres of land to give more permanent protection for the plovers and other endangered wildlife.
“It’s such a magnet for birds that it ends up being a magnet for birders,” Itani said.
“There’s so many other awesome birding places in Chicago,” she added. “Like Washington Park, on the South Side — that’s a phenomenal place to bird. There are places all across the city.”
At one point, Itani spotted a black-throated Green Warbler diving in and out of a hedge, perching itself up on a branch beside two acorns and a spider’s web. It displayed its yellow plumage as the crowd of birders tried to snap a picture in time.
Spring migration is the best time to be at Montrose, especially during the last week of April and first three weeks of May, explained Itani. August is the best time to see shorebirds heading south, and fall migration — from mid-September until the end of October — is also great, she said.
Montrose is a go-to spot for Warblers and other small bird migrants, said Al Stokie, 76, who posts daily journal entries about his birding adventures in an online group, Illinois Birders Exchanging Thoughts.
“You don’t really want to do Montrose later on, unless you’re doing a breeding survey if you want to see what birds nest here,” said Stokie, who was also at Montrose that morning.
Walking through the mud trail, birders keep a lookout for different species — stopping frequently, then crouching for a better look at some thrushes, which stay close to the ground. Others point toward the trees. But everyone keeps noise to a minimum, respecting the calm, meditative nature of the activity and listening to the birds chirp and sing.
Parts of the sanctuary have been closed for construction of 1/3-mile long trail.
“We hoped that having the wired cage over the nest would have precluded an event like this … but [the skunk] found a weak spot in the wire and broke the welding and was able to reach in far enough to grab the nest,” Semel said.
Monty and Rose are fine, he added, and “already considering nesting again. The likelihood of them having a second nest is very high.”
Thursday morning, the pair already were courting and scraping a nest. If they nest and produce eggs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services will install a larger enclosure to protect it.
Itani and other volunteers had monitored the nest in two-hour shifts from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, and will continue to check to see if Monty and Rose nest again.
Before the skunk, the plovers and their eggs had avoided another threat, with a little help.
In mid-May, surveillance cameras installed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture captured photos of a balloon caught against the enclosure around the nest.
It was 4:30 a.m. when Clemency, the wildlife service field supervisor, saw photos of the balloon. She immediately rushed to the nest.
“Birds can get tangled and choked or trapped in the strings. So really the combination of those bits of plastic and the string make the balloons one of the more deadly kinds of pollution that we have,” she said.
Nish, one of Monty and Rose’s chicks, hatched at Montrose in 2020. This year, Nish mated with a plover at Maumee State Park, near Toledo, and produced an egg. It was Ohio’s first piping plover nest in over 80 years.
“All of our resources have been shared with the Ohio team, and the Chicago team is ready to help in any capacity it can,” Itani wrote on Illinois Birders Exchanging Thoughts. “These magical birds are bringing communities together in the most wonderful of ways.”
Itani and illustrator Anna-Maria Crum are releasing a children’s picture book about the plover pair this month. “Monty and Rose Nest at Montrose” is intended for children ages 2 to 8, but will likely find willing readers among plover-lovers of all ages.
All proceeds will support research and conservation efforts for piping plovers and other shorebirds. There’s a website — plovermother.com — for more information on ordering the book.
“It’s so much bigger than just the birding community, because that whole story around the plovers is about conservation and protecting not just this one species, but the whole habitat,” Tolzmann said.
“It’s all brought everybody together, to see the importance of preserving and expanding these spaces.”
There are 19,700 members of the Illinois Birding Network, a Facebook group used to share rare bird sightings, hotspot locations and upcoming bird watching walks.
Marcia Suchy, 73, who lives in Franklin Park, says she sees 40 to 50 birds on a typical excursion.
“I’ve met so many wonderful people and acquired so many beautiful friends just because of birds. These are all people that have that fire inside of them,” she said.
“You see a little bird and it’s kind of like stopping and smelling the roses; you get such calmness, such pleasure, such instant gratification from watching these little things and the colors that are in them.”