In 2019, Borns and other volunteers established a piping plover viewing area, so the birds could be safely observed from a distance. Credit: Kelsey Vlamis

One day in the late 1990s, local birder Leslie Borns visited Montrose Beach, as she often did, and noticed lakeshore rush, a grassy plant that hadn’t been seen in Chicago in more than 50 years. Excited by what this could mean, Borns contacted the park district to suggest they stop pulling the plants from the sand on the eastern edge of the beach and let whatever pops up continue growing. Twenty years later, the Montrose Beach Dunes is the highest quality natural area in the city of Chicago. Of the nearly 100 natural areas that the park district oversees, it’s the only place in the city that has a state-level designation as a protected area.

“I just thought, ‘We’ll probably get some more plants if they stop grooming the beach,'” Borns remembers. “I had no idea it would become as complex and biodiverse as it did.” Today, thousands of native plant species, many endangered in Illinois, call the dunes home. They support hundreds of species of birds, insects, and animals. For many in conservation, the dunes represent the potential of natural habitats and urban environments to successfully coexist.

Just miles from downtown, the dunes stretch about nine acres on a unique site at the southeast end of Montrose Beach, between Montrose and Lawrence, abutting a protected bird sanctuary. Together, the area makes up a large green space that juts out into the lake and curls around to create a protected harbor full of boats. With more than one million visitors per year, Montrose is Chicago’s biggest beach.

Unlike the large sand dunes of Indiana, the Montrose dunes are much shorter, lying lower to the ground and with countless grassy plants popping up through the sand. There are no official trails through the dunes. Nothing is paved or mulched. But there are a handful of informal trails that are used by the public.

The natural dune area sits directly next to the beach, and even stretches out in between the volleyball courts and the lake.Credit: Kelsey Vlamis

Local birders and conservationists can’t talk about the success at Montrose without crediting Borns. “When she first started, this was just a barren strip of sand,” says Brad Semel, natural heritage biologist at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. “She had the foresight to understand that wherever you could protect from disturbance, these rare plants would take a toehold and start to reestablish.”

I first met Borns, 63, at the dunes in the summer of 2019. A retired book editor, she is tall and thin with medium-length black hair draped around a pale, inquisitive face. She appears adventure-ready, with sizable sunglasses and a big floppy hat protecting her from the sun. She listens intently and responds fervently. She’s also quick to grab the binoculars hanging over her shoulder, rarely letting a bird slip by unnoticed. “Oh!” she exclaims mid-sentence. “There’s something I haven’t seen in a while!”

Two birds in particular have attracted some attention to Montrose Beach the past two summers. Monty and Rose, a pair of charismatic shorebirds called piping plovers, nested at the dunes in May 2019. It marked the first time the federally endangered species nested in Chicago in over 60 years. Borns points out an informational sign, placed at the dunes about 15 years prior, that features a photo of the piping plover, one of the most well-known birds known to nest in the type of habitat that makes up the dunes.

“It was the most iconic bird we could think of,” she says. “But I never dreamed that they would come here, and they’re nesting right next to the sign.”

“The fact that plovers are nesting there is basically credit to all the volunteers,” says Tamima Itani, vice president and treasurer of the Illinois Ornithological Society, “and the beach steward, Leslie Borns, who has led the effort to create that kind of habitat.”

Temporary fencing was placed around the dunes to protect the nesting piping plovers.Credit: Kelsey Vlamis

To the delight of Borns, as well as the many volunteers and local residents who observed the birds last summer, Monty and Rose reappeared this year in early May to again nest at Montrose. According to Itani, while Monty and Rose spend winters apart, they both arrived in Chicago within 48 hours of each other. Once abundant, today there are only about 70 pairs of piping plovers nesting in the Great Lakes—and for the past two summers, one pair in Chicago.

Born in Daytona Beach, Borns says beaches have always been close to her heart. “I really took my first walking steps on a beach.” She remembers shorebirds were plentiful when she was young. “We used to walk along the tide and these little birds would be running in and out of the tide; you’d practically trip over them.” When she moved to Illinois to attend the University of Chicago, she studied history and ultimately pursued a career in book publishing. But she always had bird watching as a hobby.

Borns says her lifelong love of nature is the reason she first noticed the rare plants at Montrose and recognized the opportunity there. Once the city pulled back on grooming that end of that beach, more and more native plants emerged. New birds showed up. Eventually, the dunes formed, and not just any dunes. Known as panne habitat, part of the area is a rare wetland type that only exists along the Great Lakes. There are about 250 acres of it left in the world.

The Montrose dunes are maintained almost entirely by volunteers, all led by Borns. Over the past two decades, she’s recruited around 700 volunteers. From March to October, she plans workdays for the public at least once a month. Due to the pandemic and subsequent lakefront closure, the first workday of this year was in mid-August, though Borns has since been planning more of them than normal to make up for the lost time. Volunteers pull weeds, pick up garbage, or repair signs. The park district provides tools and resources as needed, but as the site steward, Borns, a volunteer herself, manages the area.

“This has become my life’s work,” Borns says. “It’s my passion.”

She says it’s been amazing to watch the area grow and change, and she’s grateful for the support from volunteers and the park district, but it hasn’t been without challenges.

Federal, state and city agencies, as well as local organizations, participated in efforts to protect the piping plovers.Credit: Kelsey Vlamis

Last year, the Mamby on the Beach music festival set to take place at Montrose was met with staunch opposition by conservationists as well as some business owners and neighbors. Critics said the concert would disrupt the piping plovers, among other things, and accused the park district of keeping them in the dark. Jam Productions, a local event production company, eventually cancelled the festival, citing the plovers and the rising water level of Lake Michigan.

Borns considers it a big win, but says it was just the latest and most outrageous example of the struggle to strike a balance between recreation and conservation that’s always there, especially in a big city like Chicago. “Particularly now, with climate change and the higher lake levels, there’s much more competition for the use of these areas.” And as habitat restoration becomes increasingly relevant in urban places, cities have to strive to achieve this delicate balance as well. Montrose Beach serves as a glowing example of that balance.

On a typical summer day, the long stretch of sand is dense with beachcombers. There are volleyball courts, a designated dog beach, and a full-service restaurant. It’s a hopping place, making the success of the adjacent natural dune area all the more special. Despite the crowds, beachgoers are respectful of the dunes, usually obeying signage and sticking to the designated trails.

“You have the densest metropolitan area in close juxtaposition to this high quality natural area,” says biologist Semel. “It’s just remarkable, the contrast, and that they can work this well together so far.”

For Borns, protecting natural places is about more than protecting endangered species. “I realize how important it is not only to me but to other people,” she says. “I’ve had people tell me they don’t know what they’d do here, living in Chicago, if they didn’t have a place like this to go to. And it really means a lot to me.”  v