Monty the piping plover is now a film star. Credit: Gordon Garcia

A Great Lakes piping plover can be hard to spot. Walking up to the Montrose Beach Dunes Natural Area, you may initially confuse it for a killdeer—its taller cousin—or a spotted sandpiper. You may even need a pair of binoculars. But the piping plover’s light gray feathers, quick run, and distinctive “peep” will ultimately give it away—many birders affectionately call them “cotton balls with legs.”

It’s been two and a half years since Monty and Rose, the city’s most famous Great Lakes piping plovers, made their summer home in Uptown. One of about 70 breeding pairs of their species, and the first to settle in Chicago in 71 years, the couple’s choice to nest on the city’s busiest beach astounded local birders—and even resulted in the 2019 cancellation of the music festival, Mamby on the Beach, due to concerns from conservationists. Monty and Rose have become celebrities in their own right, spawning posters, stickers, a limited-edition pale ale, and even their own holiday designated by Governor J.B. Pritzker. And this week, they’re poised to become movie stars.

Monty and Rose 2 is the first feature-length documentary about the all-star couple, set to premiere at the Music Box Theatre on September 4 and 6. (It is numbered “2” because it expands on the previous 23-minute short.) The hour-long film follows Monty and Rose from their hatching in 2017 to the trials they faced nesting in Waukegan and, later, Chicago. Heartwarming and comprehensive, it combines original documentary footage, local bird photography, and interviews with wildlife scientists, birdwatchers, and some of the hundred-plus volunteers who educated the public about the plovers and monitored the area for predators, which include off-leash dogs and other birds. The film uses an original song from the local band Congress of Starlings, fronted by longtime birder Aerin Tedesco and her partner, Andrea Bunch.

Monty and Rose 2
Dir. Bob Dolgan, 60 min. Sat 9/4, 1 PM and Mon 9/6, 2:30 PM, Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport, montyandrose.net, $20-$25.

“I was really spurred by how unlikely their story was,” filmmaker and Uptown resident Bob Dolgan told me. “Montrose [Beach] itself is such a spectacle every weekend, but to also have this rare bird there is a pretty amazing sight.” Dolgan, who has a background in nonprofit communications and writes the newsletter “This Week in Birding,” was already fascinated by Great Lakes piping plovers, having seen them earlier in the year at Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan, so Monty and Rose’s sudden appearance at Montrose Beach felt like fate. Dolgan hired a cinematographer days after the first sighting, and he later raised $5,480 on Kickstarter to fund the project.

Plover chicks at Montrose Beach Credit: Bob Dolgan

Shining through the movie is people’s love for the birds. In a talking-head interview, artist Tony Fitzpatrick tells Dolgan about the measures he would’ve taken if Mamby on the Beach had occurred. “I had a motorcycle club—that shall go nameless—who were going to send a hundred soldiers and we were going to guard the perimeter of that nesting site,” said Fitzpatrick. “And believe me, buddy, nobody would’ve violated that nesting site.”

Cuteness is one factor, but the birders I spoke to described the plovers as resilient and even fierce. Brenda Janish, a UX designer who lives in Ravenswood, called them the “Chihuahuas of the bird world” because of how easily underestimated they are. Volunteers have seen the plovers pick fights with seagulls and fly circles around hawks to protect their young. 

Janish did not previously consider herself a birder, but after volunteering for monitoring shifts over two summers, she’s grown to love the plovers. In her spare time, she’s designed plover-themed varsity shirts, patches, and even a hand-sewn Halloween costume. “It’s nice to have something to commemorate all the hours that were put in to protect them,” Janish said.

Brenda Janish made her very own piping plover costume for Halloween. Credit: courtesy Brenda Janish

Tamima Itani was one of the first people to spot the piping plovers at Montrose Beach in 2019 and, while on the phone reporting the sighting, she gave them the names Monty and Rose to more easily distinguish the two (they were identifiable because of the colored bands on their legs that denote the brood they came from and the breeding area). Itani, who goes by “Plovermother,” is vice president of the Illinois Ornithological Society and coordinator of the nesting monitor volunteer network, which arranges two-hour shifts between dawn and dusk, from late April to early August. In May, she released the illustrated children’s book Monty and Rose Nest at Montrose in hopes of inspiring the next generation of conservationists. “I want people to want piping plovers in our future,” Itani said. 

Perhaps greater than the fascination with the birds is how they’ve managed to bring people together. A whole community has formed around the Great Lakes piping plovers, there to mourn eggs lost to a hungry skunk, rejoice when a former fledgling forms a family of his own, and wave goodbye when they fly for their winter homes in Texas and Florida.

Ann Hetzel Gunkel, a philosophy professor at Columbia College Chicago, told me that the piping plovers changed her life. From an early age, her 20-year-old son Staś was interested in nature and the two went on birding trips together, but in spring 2019 they became even closer when they signed up for weekly volunteer shifts together. Stás found the experience so clarifying that he interned with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this past summer, working more directly with the piping plovers than when he was a volunteer. 

Gunkel couldn’t help but see the parallels between Monty and Rose and their chicks, and her own relationship with her son as he prepared to graduate from high school in early 2019. “When we first started, we were watching over this plover family and watching the chicks hatch, grow up, forage, and eventually fly away. It was like this microcosm that we watched—a whole life cycle of a little family,” she said. “It’s been very special to share that with him.”

“You weren’t kidding, that was sappy,” Staś joked.

“Yeah it was, but I’m the mom and that’s my job,” Gunkel said, laughing. “It’s kind of a magical thing to be involved in.”