'Every chick counts': Piping plovers' release part of species recovery in Lake County

Friends of the piping plover, a little sand-colored shorebird known for its antics and plaintive-sounding whistle, are celebrating as the last of four chicks released in Lake County is presumed on the wing headed for a beach in Georgia or Florida.

Although one died during its stay due to a traumatic injury, two began their migration about a week ago, and the fourth apparently left this weekend.

Those involved in the effort are waiting with fingers crossed that the 7-inch birds will survive the arduous migration and return next year.

The chicks were named Marram, Blaze, Pepper and Sunny for native plants in the area and to recognize the beauty and importance of Great Lakes dunes. Marram died July 29. Sunny and Pepper were last seen Aug. 4, while Blaze was last seen Thursday.

After disappearing from Illinois beaches around 1955, the federally endangered piping plover was down to 11 to 14 pairs in the mid-1980s. They have been making a slow, steady comeback with the help of various agencies and a dedicated network of volunteers.

"This really is an icon of the open beaches of the Great Lakes. They're very endearing," said Brad Semel, endangered species recovery specialist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

The release last month of four chicks at Adeline Jay Geo-Karis Illinois Beach State Park in Zion and three at Montrose Beach in Chicago is a strategy to reduce the piping plovers' risk of extinction.

"People realize they're part of our natural heritage, a species that makes up an important part of the natural ecosystem," Semel said.

The chicks were rescued in New York and raised in captivity at the University of Michigan's Biological Station near Pellston, where Semel drove 14 hours round trip to get them.

Illinois was selected as the first site outside Michigan for captive-released chicks because of its diverse shoreline habitat, the historic presence of plovers nesting in the area and the ability to closely monitor them, Semel said.

The action was considered a critical step toward the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service piping plover recovery plan.

"By releasing the piping plovers outside of Michigan, we're hopeful that they'll return to other Great Lakes states, such as Illinois, and help to boost the population," said Jillian Farkas, the agency's Great Lakes piping plover coordinator.

The goal is 150 breeding pairs with 50 of those outside Michigan, Farkas said. Captive-raised birds are more likely than wild-fledged birds to return to the beach they occupied before migrating south, experts say.

"It's absolutely a huge accomplishment because the population is so endangered," said Donna Kenski, co-vice president of Lake County Audubon. "Every egg counts. Every chick counts. Every nesting pair counts. It's an effort to expand their breeding opportunities (and) their breeding sites."

Many here may have heard of the piping plover through media coverage of Monty and Rose, the beloved pair that called Montrose Beach home beginning in 2019. Their story was made into a documentary, an official selection for the One Earth Film Festival.

Monty died of a respiratory infection last year. Rose did not return this year and her whereabouts are unknown, though her offspring Imani was seen there in late April.

The pair first nested at Waukegan Beach in 2018, but it couldn't be protected, so the nest was salvaged and hatched in Pellston, Semel said.

Semel released the four captive-raised chicks July 12 at Illinois Beach State Park, but they split time a little south at the beach adjoining NRG Energy's closed Waukegan Generating Station.

NRG partnered in the effort by taking monitors via four-wheel drive over rough terrain to the hard-to-reach location. They were monitored by Sharing Our Shore, a partnership between the city of Waukegan and Lake County Audubon Society.

"NRG was very helpful," said Glen Moss, president of the Lake County Audubon Society.

One of Lake County's piping plovers, on the right, at Illinois Beach State Park was nicknamed Pepper. Three of the four captive-reared chicks survived and have migrated south. Courtesy of Matt Tobin
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