Mountain Plover

Charadrius montanus

(c) Glen Tepke
  • CHARADRIIDAE
  • Plovers
  • Charadriiformes
  • Tildío montañés, Chichicuilote montañés
  • Pluvier montagnard
Introduction
Despite its name, the Mountain Plover is actually a resident of arid plains and prairies, rather than mountains. This unwary species is often quite approachable, a trait which has proven most unfortunate over the past century and a half. When intruded upon, the Mountain Plover will often choose to run rather than fly. A disturbed bird may simply crouch low to the ground, relying, for better or worse, upon the disguise of its earthy colored plumage to avoid detection.   
Appearance Description
Compared to most other North American plovers, the Mountain Plover is quite plain. This pale, earth-colored bird is white on the lower breast and belly, and lacks the flashy plumage and black breast bands of other plovers. With its long legs, it stands about nine inches tall and has a 23-inch wingspan, but adults weigh less than four ounces. Breeding adults develop a white face with contrasting black on the bill, cap, and lores; breeding males are only slightly less drab than females. In flight, the white underwing is apparent, as are the dark wingtips and tail tip.
Range Map
Courtesy Kenn Kaufman
Range Distribution
The summer range of the Mountain Plover stretches across the Great Plains region, from Canada to Texas. Most breeding occurs in Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado. Up to 85% of the total population is thought to winter in California's Imperial and San Joaquin valleys, with smaller numbers spending the winter in Arizona, southern Texas and northern Mexico. The bird's range has been decreasing. The species no longer breeds in many areas where it was once found, particularly in the eastern and southern portions of its range.
 
A legend for the range map to the right can be found here.
Habitat
Mountain Plovers nest exclusively in flat, arid, sparsely vegetated areas, permitting a full view of their surroundings. Short-grass prairies are preferred. Where grasses are taller, the plovers stick to areas that have been heavily grazed or recently burned. They also occasionally breed in semi-desert areas, particularly south and west of the Great Plains. Although classified a "shorebird," the Mountain Plover is usually found far from water. In winter, the Mountain Plover generally seeks out plowed, grazed, or otherwise disturbed flat agricultural lands.
Feeding
When feeding, Mountain Plovers typically run short distances across open, flat land, stopping suddenly to survey the area for prey. This energetic feeding method is repeated at length. Mountain Plovers occasionally stamp one foot on the ground to scare up prey. Preferred foods include grasshoppers, ants, beetles, and other small insects and invertebrates.
Reproduction
In spring, pairs quickly form on the breeding grounds. The species' unusual breeding process begins when the male plover excavates several simple nest scrapes, which he then displays to his mate. Once a scrape is deemed suitable, the female lays her eggs in the crude "nest." When the clutch of approximately three eggs is complete, the birds finally begin to construct an actual nest around the eggs. Bits of grass, leaves, dried cow manure, and other available materials are placed around the darkly speckled buff colored eggs until they are half buried. Equally unusual is the fact that many female Mountain Plovers actually lay two clutches of eggs at two separate nest sites. In such cases, the male takes exclusive responsibility for the first clutch, while the female goes off to lay and incubate the second. If eggs or young from either clutch are lost to predation, the plovers quickly re-nest. Consequently, each pair of Mountain Plovers may make up to four nesting attempts during a single breeding season.
 
Mountain Plover chicks are precocial, ready to move about and feed themselves almost immediately upon hatching. Most leave the nest within a few hours, and are led by a parent to the feeding grounds, which are often far from the nest site. In cases where there are two parents for just one brood, the young plovers are divided between the two adults. Young Mountain Plovers can fly within five weeks, and join larger mixed flocks of adults and young in time for fall migration.
Migration
Most Mountain Plovers are short-distance migrants. California flocks leave their wintering grounds in March, flying east over the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains, non-stop, until reaching their Great Plains breeding grounds. Fall migration is less direct, as small flocks of Mountain Plovers tend to wander around the southwest for several months before arriving on the wintering grounds. Small New Mexico and Texas populations may not undertake an annual migration.
  • 8,500
  • 8,500
  • Very small population size and breeding range
Population Status Trends
Once a common bird of the Great Plains, the Mountain Plover has been decreasing steadily in number since the west was first settled. Audubon's WatchList 2002 classified the species "red"— or of global conservation concern — due to its small population, limited range, and declining numbers. In 1999, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service nominated the Mountain Plover for protection under the Endangered Species Act, but the nomination was withdrawn in 2003, upon determining that the Mountain Plover was not declining as quickly as previously feared across its entire range. Nonetheless, the total population remains quite low, especially when compared to historic levels. The total population declined an estimated 3% annually from the 1970s to the early 1990s, and is presently half of what it was in 1966.
Conservation Issues
Several factors have negatively affected the Mountain Plover over the past 150 years. Hunters once found this relatively tame, approachable bird to be exceptionally easy prey. A single gunner could take dozens with little effort. While the birds are now protected from hunting in the United States, they face additional challenges. Loss and alteration of habitat on both the breeding and wintering grounds constitute major threats to the species' survival. Historically, the Mountain Plover nested in prairies inhabited by larger grazing animals, such as bison, pronghorns, and prairie dogs. The decline of these species has coincided with the decline of the Mountain Plover. Much of the Mountain Plovers' former short-grass prairie breeding grounds are now farmland. When the birds attempt to breed in agricultural areas, their nests are often destroyed by farm equipment. In such cases, plovers often attempt to re-nest in newly planted fields, only to abandon the area when the crops grow too tall.
 
Attempts have been made in certain areas to make land more attractive to Mountain Plovers. The species makes ready use of grasslands intentionally burned in spring. Agricultural areas burned in fall make equally attractive wintering grounds, especially in California. Known breeding sites have been targeted for conservation efforts in many areas. Protection of black-footed prairie dog towns is important, as Mountain Plovers often breed quite successfully when associated with prairie dogs. Under the guidelines of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Conservation Reserve Program, farmers are encouraged to manage their land in an environmentally responsible manner. Areas of restored short-grass prairie created under the program can become valuable habitat for Mountain Plovers, as well as other grassland species.
What You Can Do
Stay clear of Mountain Plover breeding colonies. Although the birds may seem easily approachable, bird watchers, photographers, outdoor enthusiasts, and landowners should avoid disturbing this at-risk species.
 
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Conservation Reserve Program rewards farmers and benefits wildlife through the establishment of environmentally responsible land management techniques.
 
For more actions you can take, including Audubon activities, please visit our resources page.
More Information
Visit our resources page for more information about this species.
Natural History References
Bent, A. C. Life Histories of North American Shorebirds. U.S. Natl. Mus. Bull. 146. 1929.
 
Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996.
 
Knopf, F. L. 1996. Mountain Plover (Charadrius montanus). In The Birds of North America, No. 211 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and the American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.
 
Richards, Alan. Shorebirds: A Complete Guide to Their Behavior and Migration. Gallery Books, New York. 1988.
 
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Endangered Species Program – Mountain Plover. September 2003.
Conservation Status References
Bent, A. C. Life Histories of North American Shorebirds. U.S. Natl. Mus. Bull. 146. 1929.
 
Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996.
 
Knopf, F. L. 1996. Mountain Plover (Charadrius montanus). In The Birds of North America, No. 211 (A. Poole and F. Gill, Eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and the American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.
 
Richards, Alan. Shorebirds: A Complete Guide to Their Behavior and Migration. Gallery Books, New York. 1988.
 
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Endangered Species Program – Mountain Plover. September 2003.