CHICAGO — Another piping plover nesting season has come and gone at Montrose Beach bird sanctuary. Because of the work of conservationists, the incredible love story of piping plovers “Monty” and “Rose” continues.

At sunrise one recent morning, photographer and birder Matthew Dolkart, 39, was there to photograph the beloved birds.

“This is kind of the spot where you’ll see most of the shore birds resting in the morning or even during the day,” he said. “They’ll be foraging at the shoreline.”

Surrounded by only the beach and the birds, we’re listening for a low-pitched peep. That is Imani: Chicago’s piping plover, the offspring of Montrose beach’s namesake lovebirds Monty and Rose. The couple first nested at the beach in 2019.

“They came back in 2020, and 2021 again – and 2021 that’s where Imani came from,” Dolkart said. “That was Imani’s origin story.”

Only a bit bigger than baseballs, the brownish-grey piping plovers almost blend in with the sand. They scurry, scamper, dart and dash with a lovable puffiness and an almost cartoonish quickness.

“They carry such an adorableness to them, right?” Dolkhart said. “Especially their chicks. If you’ve ever seen their chicks, they look like a children’s’ art project: big fluffy cotton balls with toothpick stick legs.”

Dolkart has connected to the birding community with his camera, taking astonishing photos from close range, at the level of the birds themselves – on the sand.  They can be seen on his Instagram account.

“He’s got a real eye for a good photograph of a bird and he gets low,” fellow birder Terry Walsh said. “I’m too old to get down in the sand, so I always know if it’s matt taking pictures of birds because he’s on his belly.”

Dolkart said his photographs help document a moment in time and preserve it for all to see.

“When I’m out there and photographing the birds, it’s also kind of like a postcard back to home, where you can send that photo to someone who actually was involved in raising that bird,” he said.

The birds are federally protected under the Endangered Species and Migratory Birds Treaty Acts. They are a success story of conservation because each bird is tracked it’s easy to follow them and know their movements. The Great Lakes Piping Plover population has grown from less than 15 pairs in the 1980s to more than 70 this year.  

“They’re very perky animals and they are very cute, so that’s one great thing. There are a lot of birds that aren’t cute and a lot of wildlife that isn’t cute – and it’s a tough life out here,” Walsh said. “You see the peregrine falcons zooming around the marlins. It’s a bird-eat-bird environment. But it’s great to see them.”

Researchers – through banding and tracking – have established that piping plovers tend to nest in the same spots year after year.

“It is definitely a love story, especially when you have Monty and Rose, who for years, went off and wintered in totally separate locations: Florida and Texas, and came back to the same beach here in Chicago, three years in a row, and came in almost within hours of each other,” Dolkart said.

But last year, Rose never appeared at the beach.  Soon after, Monty died of a fungal infection.

To bolster the piping plover population, scientists released three fledglings at Montrose Beach this summer, conservationists hope one of those birds could come back and mate with Imani next year, potentially continuing the love story started by Monty and Rose.

“It’s a little like a season of the bachelor, where Imani is trying to find, but there are no contestants to join him,” Dolkart said. “It is a little sad this season, but you know, him just being here for a whole season helps us realize that the habitat is going to be successful eventually. It just inspires hope that next year is going to be the year.”