For the Birds Radio Program: Mountain Plovers

Original Air Date: March 5, 1997

Here I talk about a really neat prairie bird. I had no recording of a Mountain Plover so I used a Snowy Plover call.

Audio missing


One of the biggest thrills of my Texas trip was seeing a dull, drab bird in a dismal habitat. Kim Eckert got a report that some Mountain Plovers were being seen in a plowed field 7 miles north of La Joya, so we drove out there to check it out. The last time I saw a Mountain Plover was June 29, 1979, in the Pawnee National Grasslands of Colorado, before I had either my scope or my good binoculars, so this sighting would be good for my Zeiss list, Kowa list, Texas list, year list, decade list… the list of lists goes on and on.

But I wanted to see the Mountain Plover for more than just checking it off on lists. It’s a lovely bird of the short grass prairie, the shape and size of a Killdeer, with soft brown plumage, white underside, and no neck rings or other adornments except a dark forehead. The loveliness of Mountain Plovers isn’t ostentatious or gaudy—it’s not even elegant and austere. These delicate birds are lovely in the manner of little brown mushrooms, quietly peeking out of the grass, happiest when no one notices them at all. Not that they’re particularly meek—if a cow or bison approaches the Mountain Plover nest or young, the parent, weighing only 2 1/2 ounces, will fly right at its face.

Even with valiant parents, ground nests are very vulnerable to predation, so to maximize the number of babies that each pair produces, the female lays about three eggs in the first nest, which is really just a depression in the ground, and the male incubates these first eggs. She immediately gets to work laying a second brood of eggs which she herself will incubate.

Mountain Plovers are so secretive that not nearly enough is known about their numbers or their life histories. Right now the Colorado Division of Wildlife and the U.S. Forest Service are investigating whether to list the species as endangered or threatened, but have too little data about these little prairie ghosts to be able to justify any position at all. So they are making a concerted effort to search them out.

Anyway, when Kim drove us to the place where the plovers were supposed to be, we didn’t see a thing. It was a plowed field littered with rocks, which seemed all wrong to Kim, and there seemed to be a better field half a mile down, so we drove a ways more. There we found a big flock of Long-billed Curlews—beautiful prairie birds with improbably long, delicate beaks and plumage the color and richness of prairie sod. But no Mountain Plovers. So we drove back to the field where they were supposed to be, and Kim and I scanned with binoculars and scope. Way out on the horizon, suddenly our eyes picked out a host of these lovely birds, with a few Killdeer thrown in for good measure. We got clear, if distant, looks through my trusty scope, good enough for any list. Of course I wished I could see them better—close enough to see their feather edges and soft, large eyes, but this was a lovely taste of things yet to come. I’ll be going to Denver at the end of April, and will make a visit to the Pawnee National Grasslands specifically to spend some times with this lovely apparition of the prairie.