Looking for a unique birding experience?
We have just the thing for you! For the past 11 years, the town of Karval in southeast Colorado has opened its doors to birders and conservationists from around the country, inviting the world into the small community for the Mountain Plover Festival. And when we say they open their doors to guests, we mean that literally! Community members welcome visitors into their homes, providing food and a place to stay during the festival. Participants get not only a world-class birding experience, but also an opportunity to spend quality time with their hosts. People may come looking for birds, but they also gain new friendships and a fresh perspective about modern rural life and conservation on working lands.
The origins of this community-led conservation success story can be traced to a fateful day when a local rancher by the name of Russell Davis met Tammy VerCauteren, a young biologist at the time (now Bird Conservancy’s Executive Director). Looking across his property, she pointed to a ghost-like bird in the distance and excitedly explained it was a Mountain Plover. He’d never paid them much attention before and was intrigued — due at least in some part to Tammy’s enthusiasm. He also had little idea this was the beginning of something really special that would change not only his outlook, but the town’s as well.
Aptly nicknamed the “Ghost of the Prairie”, Mountain Plovers are a ground-nesting, small-bodied shorebird endemic to the shortgrass prairie of the Great Plains. They blend in so well with their environment that finding them can prove challenging even for seasoned birders. Nearly 80% of the breeding population comes to Colorado every spring. Adapted to grazed lands of the west, they typically select prairie dog towns, fallow farm fields or other grazed rangelands for breeding. Unlike many birds, they prefer disturbed lands with little to no vegetation.
Years of early surveys showed that Mountain Plovers were in stark decline, largely due to habitat loss and agricultural practices limiting where this shortgrass specialist can breed. Conservation organizations like Bird Conservancy engaged directly with ranchers and landowners in a grassroots, voluntary effort to save the species. The Mountain Plover was petitioned, unsuccessfully, for threatened status on the Endangered Species List in 2003 and again in 2011. The growing awareness and conservation opportunities may have contributed to the decision not to list the species. For much of the 2000s, farmers in Colorado and Nebraska worked closely with biologists and state agencies to implement an innovative conservation method to identify and mark nests on crop fields to protect them from accidental loss due to summer tillage operations. In places like Karval, ranchers willingly modified their ranching practices to keep prairie dog towns on the landscape in order to support breeding plovers.
How can ranches help Plovers?
Grazing can be an effective way to conserve grassland bird habitat. Grassland birds and native grazers coexisted in this landscape long before settlers moved in. Cattle can mimic the natural effects. Grazing can help keep a healthy mix of native grasses, and ranch lands with prairie dog towns provide ideal conditions for Mountain Plover. Much like Burrowing Owls, they have adapted to the unique shortgrass prairie ecosystem which is specific to the Great Plains — especially Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. Local birding festivals are great ways to highlight collaboration among agencies, landowners and NGO’s, while also providing economic benefits. More and more ranchers are diversifying their income with ecotourism opportunities, bringing in birders and nature enthusiasts that contribute to the local economy.
Why is the festival so popular?
Birders come from around the country to see a Mountain Plover because of its rarity and the fact it’s just plain hard to spot! The festival brings together local ranching communities, biologists and birders. The idea for the festival originated with the Karval Community Alliance, a group of local farmers, ranchers and community members dedicated to promote conservation in Karval. The festival provides a rare opportunity to talk with third generation ranchers, the sons and daughters of homesteaders. You can walk the spring hunting grounds of the Native Americans and visit an historic prairie school house. In this “Big Sky” country, you’ll enjoy vistas that go on for miles, surrounded only by the sounds of nature – a world away from from the hustle and bustle of city life.
Can’t make it to Karval? How about Kimball!
In Kimball Nebraska, we are trying to reproduce the same energy the Karval Festival brings and highlight a long-term conservation program by farmers that allow us to mark nests prior to tilling their fields. The farmers in this community have spent 15 years protecting plover nests on their fields. Both Karval and Kimball are models of community champions that are making a tremendous positive impact. The Kimball Mountain Plover Festival will be held on June 4th this year. Contact email@example.com for more information.