Monday, April 18, 2011

Birding the Short-grass Prairie

(Photos by Nancy Bell)
One of our all-time favorite places to bird in Colorado is out in Weld County, including in the Pawnee National Grasslands.  It is at its very best the first couple of weeks of May, when all of the short-grass prairie breeders are present and active, and the woods at Crow Valley Campground – which acts like an island of trees in a sea of grass – is a wonderful migrant trap.  This year, we pushed the season a bit and went out there on April 17, after reading a report on the Colorado Field Ornithologists’ COBIRDS listserve of large groups of Mountain Plover and Long-billed Curlew.  
We found that both species were clearly a “hit or miss” proposition.  Both appear to be very much in migratory mode and are not staying in any one place very long.  The fabulous numbers seen April 16 were not repeated for us.  Nancy and I spent more than an hour from around 9 am to 10 am scoping the heart of a recent burn from a fast-moving prairie fire, where 30 Mountain Plover had been seen the previous day, and scoped another area where 48 Long-billed Curlew had been seen.  We did not see a single plover or curlew.  They clearly had pushed onward and/or dispersed overnight.  All of the other places reported to hold these species turned up nothing but large numbers of Horned Larks.  We finally found seven Mountain Plover just west of the famed Murphy’s Pasture in the Pawnee National Grasslands.  They were feeding in another recently burned area, which already had a little green showing through the blackened grasses and cactus.  What a joy to see!  Nancy even managed to get some photos with her long lens.  The Mountain Plover is classified by IUCN as Near Threatened because it has a moderately small population, and it is continuing to decline as a consequence of habitat loss and degradation resulting from cultivation, urbanization, over-grazing, and changes in native herbivore populations.  The Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory ( has a very successful program that encourages private land owners to protect plover nests when cultivating their fields.  
We then went on west and found several McCown’s Longspurs out in the stubble of the late winter prairie.  By then a strong wind had come up (at least 30 mph with stronger gusts), and we could not refind our plovers when passing through the same area.  As we went through Murphy’s Pasture we came upon several carloads of birders who were getting out to see a single plover spotted by one of their group.  As for curlews, we had a distant view of two flying north as we headed into the Pawnee on a paved county road, and we enjoyed a wonderful close view of a Pronghorn.  In all, we saw 55 species of birds today,including those we saw in Larimer County as we returned to our home high in the foothills of the Rockies. Not bad for this early in the Colorado spring, and the plovers were a special treat.

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