Chicago’s famous piping plover Imani has returned to Montrose Beach for the summer

Chicago’s lovebird has returned. Imani, son of the city’s cherished piping plovers Monty and Rose, returned to the sands of Lake Michigan on Thursday.

Around 5:30 a.m., a birder spotted him at the Montrose Beach Dunes, a 15.9-acre protected natural area at the southernmost point of the beach. Last summer, Imani also returned to the beach on April 25. Tamima Itani, lead volunteer coordinator for Chicago Piping Plovers, said she expected the call around this time of year.

“I wasn’t expecting him to be back precisely on the 25th, it’s just that impressive,” she said. “And in typical Imani fashion, he didn’t waste any time chasing killdeer off his turf.”

Birdwatchers saw the tiny bird in a standoff with one of the larger plovers, after which the killdeer flew away. Imani is reclaiming his summer home, and he’s flourishing.

“When I got there, I saw him resting, I saw him feeding,” Itani said. “He looks great.”

While the few existing, federally endangered Great Lakes piping plovers are not tracked with GPS, conservationists have followed their migration patterns by identifying bands on their legs, which observers in their wintering areas can use to register where the birds have gone. For instance, Imani’s father, Monty, was known to winter in Texas while his mother, Rose, wintered in Florida.

So far, no one has spotted Imani in wherever his preferred southern destination is. “He’s sneaky,” Itani said.

It remains to be seen whether the first three captive-reared plover chicks ever released in Chicago last year — Searocket, Wild Indigo and Prickly Pear — will also return this summer. About 70% of piping plovers brought up in captivity return to where they were released.

Meet Searocket, Wild Indigo and Prickly Pear: The first captive-reared piping plover chicks released in Chicago

“We’re very hopeful that one or more will come back,” Itani said. “And we really want one of them to be a female and to mate with Imani. If I had a magic wand, that’s what I’d make happen. But we have no control over it.”

It’s difficult to discern the sex of an individual because of the similar bills and plumage of males and females, so observing their mating behavior is key. In the case that one or all of the three chicks return, it’ll be easier to tell whether any one of them is female.

“The definitive proof is when they pair up, and then we know for sure,” Itani said.

Up until now, Imani has not found a companion, since most Great Lakes piping plovers already have a mate.

“That’s what I try to explain about being part of an endangered species: You’re on a beach and there’s no one of your kind there to mate with,” Itani said. “That’s what’s a little bit sad about Imani. He’s in (his) prime mating years, he’s ready. He has a phenomenal location, but there’s no female.”

The Great Lakes piping plover population, which reached an all-time low of 13 pairs in the 1980s, has rebounded to around 70 breeding pairs thanks to recent conservation efforts.

Because of their endangered status, protecting these shoreline birds has become a multipronged, multiagency collaboration, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the Chicago Park District and volunteers from the Chicago Ornithological Society, the Chicago Audubon Society and the Illinois Ornithological Society.

Concerted efforts began locally in June 2019 when two Great Lakes piping plovers came to nest at Montrose, becoming the first to return to Chicago and the larger Cook County area in 71 years. They were Monty and Rose, and their story of love and resilience captured the hearts of countless Chicagoans. Bob Dolgan, who directed two documentaries about the pair, went to see Imani at Montrose Beach on Thursday morning.

In 2022, Monty died of a respiratory infection, just a month after Rose went missing. In February of this year, the Chicago Park District memorialized Monty and Rose by renaming a section of the Montrose Dunes Natural Area as the Monty and Rose Wildlife Habitat.

Park District names part of Montrose Beach after beloved piping plovers Monty and Rose

Preparations are already happening for plover monitors to keep an eye on Imani and maybe the returning chicks this summer. After May 6, visitors can look for the volunteers in orange T-shirts around the protected area, who can help spot the little birds. But bird lovers ask that watchers also respect the plovers and keep their distance.

The Chicago Park District, which manages the beach dunes, asked in a news release Thursday that beachgoers follow the guidance provided on signage near the protected area. Fencing is being added along the pier and the beach to protect foraging shorebirds like Imani, closing the lakefront section of the dunes to visitors.

“We’re very, very fortunate to have a piping plover on our shores,” Itani said. “There’s very few of them. So we’re super lucky to have one. And, as we’ve done in the past, I appeal to everyone to try to give them space, keep the beach clean and whatever you bring in, take back out with you.”

Itani said the team is looking for more volunteers. Minimum requirements include being able to move on the beach and between the beach and pier, as well as having a mobile phone and binoculars.

Bilingual skills in English and Spanish are a plus. Two-hour volunteering shifts are available Monday to Sunday between 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., and recurring on a weekly basis. Interested people can contact

Chicago Tribune’s Robert Loerzel contributed.