Discovering an Abundance of a Rare Species

As a young birder, I received a scholarship to go to an ABA birding camp in Colorado this summer. This was the second scholarship I was awarded from the Central Valley Bird Club of California. The first one was in 2016 for a camp where I birded for a week in the Sierra Nevadas with a group led by a senior biologist from Point Blue Conservation Science. This time, though, I wanted to go further, but there were some challenges to overcome. I had to find someone (Grandpa Bob) to pay for my airfare. I had to get my first Identification card. And, as a thirteen-year-old, I had to make the flight on my own. But it was worth it. I saw 25 new species, I met other birders my age from all over America, and I did some really cool birding activities.

One of these activities was the Camp Colorado Challenge. On a particular day, our group had to find as many species as possible from the time we left early in the morning to the time we entered the dining hall for dinner. Our target species included McCown’s Longspur, Chestnut-collared Longspur (both uncommon and declining because of habitat loss), Ferruginous Hawk, and Mountain Plovers. During this time, we visited the Pawnee National Grasslands, Fossil Creek Reservoir, and a town southwest of the Pawnee called Briggsdale.

After leaving the Pawnee National Grasslands, where we saw both Longspur species and the Ferruginous Hawk on a nest, we traveled to Briggsdale to seek endangered Mountain Plovers on their breeding grounds. Mountain Plovers were considered near threatened in the 1990s, and in recent years, when their population was reduced by 80%, they have been considered threatened with a total population of about 15 to 20 thousand individuals. Their habitat is mostly dry mudflats with little vegetation and is most common in Northern Colorado during the breeding season.

So there we were in Northern Colorado during the breeding season looking for Mountain Plovers. We drove down a dirt road with telephone poles on one side. Then we stopped. The road had a large area of mudflats which were about 9 square acres on either side. A farm could be seen ahead of the mudflat on the left. Everyone got out and scanned the whole patch of dirt. Then one of the leaders spotted a plover on the far side of the mudflat in front of the farm. Its white breast and belly were easy to see if you knew where to look. But if it turned around showing its brownish back, exactly the same color of the dirt, then it would be very hard to see without a closer look through the scope. We stayed there for another 20 minutes watching, observing, and sketching this endangered bird which was a lifer for most people.

The first Mountain Plover we saw during the trip. The dirt looks exactly the same color as the plover’s back.

However, when we started driving away, the plover flew from its original position to almost 50 feet away from the road. Both vans parked again hastily and everyone took photos out of the window as the plover ran across the dirt then stopped. Then it ran again. Then it looked down and grabbed something to eat. Then it bobbed its head up and down. Eventually, it started to get windy, and the plover hunkered down in the dirt with its back to us. Some people had trouble finding it now that it was camouflaged. We decided to leave at that point to see more longspurs, Burrowing Owls and Lark Buntings.

A Lark Bunting at the Pawnee National Grasslands. Our group saw many of these during the week in Colorado.

Next, we scanned a field with lots of foot-long grass that had dirt mounds coming out of it in various places. Burrowing Owls stood at the entrance of their shelters while prairie dogs peeked out from their tunnels. We identified more longspurs and buntings taking off and landing from the distant part the field on the opposite side of the road.

Among the Burrowing Owls were 5 more Mountain Plovers. Then, on other mounds, we saw 5 more plovers. Altogether the count was now at 11. Suddenly it became 15. Then 19! There were plovers everywhere. This included at least four chicks, either standing with an adult or foraging alone. We were on our way to another location and passing another mudflat when someone sighted another 4 plovers, 2 of them being chicks.  This time we saw them very close to the road. Standing in a line in the shade of a telephone pole, they just managed to stay out of the hot sun. After alerting the van behind us and taking photos, we left for the Fossil Creek Reservoir to add some grebes to our checklist. This would be our last destination for the day.

The last Mountain Plovers for the day. Another example of their amazing camouflage.

In total, we saw 71 different species of birds, including the Mountain Plover. Of that particular species, our tally was 23. When I returned to the lodge, I realized that if there were 20,000 Mountain Plovers in the world, and we saw 23 of them today, then we observed more than one-thousandth of the world’s population. While we didn’t surpass the previous Camp Colorado Challenge record, I was able to observe many individuals of a declining species in its natural habitat. That was its own milestone for me.

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