The Mountain Plover is one of only 12 bird species endemic to the western Great Plains. Does plover rhyme with lover or clover? Regardless, this shorebird species is not found close to the shore and it doesn’t breed in the mountains. Mountain parks, yes, but Mountain Plovers don’t breed in the mountains because this species needs pool table flat areas in which to nest. They are also a bare ground specialist and they require shortgrass prairies in which to breed, but also an occasional shrub or cholla cactus should be present to provide some cover. Their dull, cryptic coloration helps to keep them from being spotted by predators.
Mountain Plover habitat is often part of a large prairie dog colony or sometimes recently burned grassland. Chico Basin Ranch’s Mountain Plovers disappeared when an outbreak of plague killed over 90 % of Chico’s black-tailed prairie dogs a few years ago. Because prairie dogs keep prairie grasses short (as does livestock), they create ideal habitat for Mountain Plovers who need grasses averaging less than three inches in height in which to nest. Rangelands are perfect for Mountain Plovers, whereas prairies converted to agricultural areas eliminate plover habitat, resulting in the Mountain Plover being proposed to be listed as a Federally Threatened Species in 2010.
Chico’s black-tailed prairie dogs are slowly recovering, and in early June, two very young Mountain Plovers were surprisingly found in an area historically used by the plovers in a Chico prairie dog town. Mountain Plovers are a precocial species meaning the young can walk almost immediately after they hatch and they immediately search for their own food, often ground beetles. Frequently, the male tends to the young and when a potential predator appears he leads the young to the safety of taller and denser grassy areas. In ideal conditions, the female lays 2-4 eggs in a second ground nest and then each parent tends to their group of young separately.
Mountain Plovers winter south to northern Mexico, South Texas, southern New Mexico, and in California. They are one of the earliest spring migrants to return to their breeding grounds, often returning in mid- to late March.