“Prairie Ghost” bird protected by farmers

Even though the Mountain Plover's preferred nesting habitat is nearly completely bare ground--like farmer's fields--it can still be very difficult to pick out. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Even though the Mountain Plover’s preferred nesting habitat is nearly completely bare ground–like farmer’s fields–it can still be very difficult to pick out. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Published June 13, 2007, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “‘Prairie Ghost’—the Where’s Waldo of the wilderness. The mountain plover has its disappearing act perfected—so much so that some people were convinced it was an endangered species.”

2014 Update: “Larry Snyder started in 2002 with the Nebraska Prairie Partners as a seasonal field technician. Now as the full-time Nebraska Prairie Partners Assistant, Larry is responsible for implementing the Mountain Plover nest protection program and wildlife escape ladder project, and he is involved in the Nebraska Prairie Partners Education and Outreach programs. Larry continues to help conduct special species surveys and has begun the implementation process of playa restoration projects in the southern panhandle.”—from the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory website, www.rmbo.org, 5-8-2014. The mountain plover nest-marking program has gained in popularity with farmers.

By Barb Gorges

If you stare really hard at the rocky soil, you may see a ghost of a bird, the “prairie ghost,” but only if it moves.

If you are good at it, you can distinguish its white belly from a pale-colored rock. But if it turns its light brown back to you, it is indistinguishable from the surrounding tilled earth.

The nickname for the mountain plover is apt. Its disappearing act may be partly responsible for people thinking there were so few of them that the species would be a good candidate for listing as threatened or endangered.

On a damp morning in late May, just 50 miles east of Cheyenne and a few miles north of Bushnell, Neb., mountain plovers were present, right in the middle of alternating, mile-long strips of winter wheat, millet and fallow ground.

Not only were they present, but the plovers were nesting on the stony ridges of the fallow strips. A nest is harder to find than the birds though because the eggs are on bare ground between the stones and they don’t move. It’s like playing “Where’s Waldo?”

A mountain plover nest is a mere scrape made by the male with his feet. He makes several. The female lays three eggs in one and three eggs in another and then each parent incubates a nest. The parents will flick small pebbles at the eggs occasionally, but that’s as far as nest building goes here.

Larry Snyder is good at seeing ghosts. His first encounter was about six years ago. While working one of his own fields, what he thought was an odd looking killdeer, one without the usual double neck band markings, flew up in front of him. He was able to find its nest and avoid driving over it.

A short time later, on a fishing trip with his daughters, he bumped into Chris Carnine of the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory. She was setting up the Nebraska Prairie Partners program, which was to include mountain plover nest surveys.

Chris identified the mystery bird. Its nest in Larry’s field became the first documented mountain plover nest in the NPP program and also for Nebraska Game and Parks.

Chris found that Larry had a good eye for plovers and he was hired to find more.

He still farms, but weekdays he works for RMBO. In the spring he rides his neighbors’ fields searching for nests. He also does burrowing owl and raptor surveys.

The first farmer to sign up for the plover program was Larry’s friend and neighbor, Bernie Culek.

As the third generation of his family on his farm south of Kimball, Neb., Bernie is always looking for better ways to make farming pay.

In 1992, when he came back to the farm, he changed it to a certified organic operation producing wheat, millet and several other grains.

Funding of the NPP program from a Nebraska Environmental Trust grant and Nebraska Game and Parks makes each mountain plover nest on his place worth $100. He allows RMBO to find and mark nests and then he plows around them. He feels he should take some responsibility for wildlife.

Signing up for the program is a risk some of Bernie’s farming neighbors have not been willing to take, he said.

The reluctant think the federal government might get too interested in plovers found on their land, even though the petition to list them was rejected in 2003 because there were more plovers than originally thought.

Bart Bly, currently in charge of the NPP program, said the long-term goal is to turn the program over to the landowners. They found a fifth of the nests last year.

But, said Bernie, for farmers like him, spring is very busy, and it is unlikely that spending hours to find a nest would be a good use of his time.

It can take two days–the longest interval Larry and summer field technician Cameron Shelton have had between nests this spring.

However, on the morning of my visit we found two nests.

Larry put out an invitation for volunteers a couple months ago. I thought it would be a good chance to see another mountain plover, my first being last summer on a field trip with Larry and the folks from the Wildcat Audubon Society of Scottsbluff, Neb. Five other volunteers have been or will be out this spring.

The catch was learning how to drive a four-wheeler. It rates right up there with snowmobiles in obnoxiousness in my book. But it’s a tool, a modern-day mule.

We rode half the length of the mile-long fallow strip at 6 miles per hour, three abreast, about 30 feet apart from each other, Larry, me, then Cameron. Then we rode back and out again, eventually sweeping the whole width of the strip.

I was watching the ground for rocks and hills instead of birds when a plover flew across in front of me, like a deer in the headlights.

Larry said “she” seemed to have shot out from under his front tire. It is impossible to tell the sex of a mountain plover sitting on a nest, but Larry and Cameron refer to them as “she” anyway.

The only time in the field one can be certain of gender, Larry said, is when birds are copulating or the male is performing a courtship display or scraping a nest site.

Larry carefully examined the ground to make sure he hadn’t run over the nest and wasn’t going to step on it.

At a short distance he found three pale olive eggs with black splotches, each about an inch and a half long. He marked the nest with florescent orange stakes set 40 feet out in four directions.

Meanwhile, Cameron brought over a plastic jar of water for a float test. He examined each egg closely for any signs of pipping, where the hatchling might have picked a hole in the shell. If there was a hole, the float test could drown the chick. The test determines the age of the egg—the higher it floats in the water, the closer it is to hatching.

Incubation takes about 30 days, but the parents aren’t tied to the nests.

If it isn’t too cold, they let solar energy work for them. But if it gets too hot, they stand, casting a shadow over the eggs, even holding out their wings sometimes, Larry said.

So temperature plays a big part in how successful nest hunting is on any given day.

On a cold day or a hot day, where the adult flies up from is likely to be the nest. Otherwise, they might be out anywhere, stalking beetles, grasshoppers, crickets and ants–the extent of their food diversity.

After Larry took a location reading and filled out a nesting record form, he explained that we couldn’t walk back from the nest to our four-wheelers the way we came. We must continue past the nest and circle back so that predators finding our scent later will also circle away.

A second plover flew, but when a little investigation didn’t get a nest, we backed off and waited for the bird to return. Larry is a patient person. He just hunkered down with his binoculars and waited.

He said some birds have an attitude. While some are straightforward, others fly off over the hill and then sneak back.

Even though he sent Cameron around to the other side of the strip, neither of them could re-find the bird until Larry changed location.

And then I saw a pale rock move. It was the bird again and the nest could be found. This one had only two eggs.

Larry said 13-lined ground squirrels are the most common nest predators, along with snakes.

Overall, Fritz Knopf, author of the Birds of North America Online account for mountain plover and the one who originated the “field clearing” idea in Colorado, told me the survival rate is very good, greater than 50 percent, sometimes even 90 percent, compared to maybe 25 percent for another ground nester, the mallard.

Last year the RMBO crews found 87 nests. This year, they are already up to 54. Larry hopes they break 100.

With his eye for prairie ghosts and the help of Cameron and the other two-man crew, they probably will.

A bird of contradictions

The mountain plover is a bird of the prairies. The naming mistake can be attributed to John James Audubon. The species was first collected by John Kirk Townsend along the Sweetwater River in Wyoming in 1832, said retired plover researcher Fritz Knopf.

Townsend shipped the specimen back to Audubon who thought that Townsend’s description of the bird’s location near the Continental Divide must mean it was found among mountain peaks. But the divide in Wyoming often runs through desert and wide-open prairie.

Also, even though classified as a shorebird, it doesn’t spend time at the shore.

Historically, mountain plover breeding habitat is the short-grass prairie of the Great Plains, from Montana to New Mexico, but today populations can be found on tilled fields.

Even on the prairie, the mountain plover prefers disturbed ground, such as burns or areas overgrazed by cattle or trimmed by prairie dogs. Thus, what may be considered good ranching practice in Wyoming, which Fritz considers the major breeding landscape for plovers, may not be compatible with the plover’s bare ground nesting requirements.

Researchers are also looking into the effects of pesticides on mountain plovers, not only on their breeding grounds, but in California’s Imperial Valley where most of them winter.

Fritz said mountain plover populations were decimated by an outbreak of plague in prairie dogs in the late 1800’s, but they prospered during the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s. Bare ground to a mountain plover means no predator ambushes. The hordes of grasshoppers must have been like manna from heaven.