Bird enthusiasts in the Chicago area have been gathering at Montrose Beach on the lakefront for a glimpse of rare piping plover chicks that hatched there last month.
On Sunday, volunteers reported seeing the two surviving chicks fly for the first time. This means the birds will soon be ready to migrate south.
The chicks will continue eating and gaining strength the next couple of weeks before they embark on their migration, said Louise Clemency, field supervisor of the Chicago Field Office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
She said the chicks’ mother flew south on Sunday, but their father is still with them. He’ll leave in the next few days, Clemency said, and the chicks will be on their own to join the migration when they feel ready.
Clemency said it was a group effort to help the chicks make it this far. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the Chicago Ornithological Society and the Chicago Park District joined forces to keep an eye on the birds since they hatched.
Over 200 volunteers signed up to help take shifts watching the birds. They would report any activities that could hurt the chicks, and they scared off any potential predators.
“It’s one of the things I love about this story,” Clemency said. “Not only do we have two more piping plovers to add to the population, but it’s really a story of people in Chicago communicating well and working together to accomplish it.”
Piping plovers are endangered, and chicks hadn’t hatched in Chicago since 1955. The rare occurrence and concern for the birds’ safety led to the cancellation of the annual Mamby on the Beach music festival on Montrose Beach.
The parents, Monty and Rose, are only one of about 70 breeding pairs of piping plovers in the entire Great Lakes region, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
This was the pair’s second attempt to raise chicks at Montrose Beach this year. The first time, their nest was flooded due to the high lake levels, according to the Chicago Ecological Services Field Office.
Experts rescued the four eggs and took them to the Great Lakes Piping Plover Salvage Captive Rearing and Release program in Michigan. But the eggs never hatched.
Monty and Rose regrouped and produced four more eggs in an area that the Chicago Park District had already roped off to protect endangered nesting birds.
Three of the four eggs hatched last month. One of the chicks died despite efforts to save it.
As the chicks and their father prepare to leave, the birding community hopes Monty and Rose will return to Montrose Beach in the spring. Clemency said that’s likely because the parents had a successful nest this summer.
And their offspring could come back to Chicago, or go anywhere in the Great Lakes region.
Araceli Gómez-Aldana is a news producer and Sunday host at WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @Araceli1010.