Ghosts of the Prairie
Sightings of the little birds known as mountain plovers had grown so few and far between that wildlife experts feared they might be endangered. But they’re not. The reason hardly anyone sees them is because they’re really, really hard to see.
As it turns out, mountain plovers are alive and well and living in Karval. This unincorporated town just a shade too far south to be the exact middle of Colorado’s Eastern Plains is home to several thousand plovers. That’s significantly more birds than human residents, who number about 30 – a figure that roughly doubles on the first morning of the Mountain Plover Festival. (There are two accepted ways of pronouncing “plover”: One rhymes with “over,” while the one folks in Karval prefer rhymes with “lover.”)
Sunrise is just a rumor on the horizon as several dozen people gather in the Karval Community Building, one of the town’s few public structures remaining after the cafe and gas station shuttered a few years back. The travelers have come from across Colorado and the nation to get a firsthand look at the elusive birds known as “the ghosts of the prairie.”
But for many people partaking of the pancake breakfast before the 6:15 a.m. departure of the first bird-watching tour, the plovers aren’t necessarily the main attraction.
“I’m not that big of a birder,” admits one woman. “I’m into small towns.”
She and her sister, who live in the crowded Front Range urban corridor, took advantage of the option allowing them to spend the festival’s two nights at the homes of local ranchers. They wanted to get a feel for life in this part of rural Colorado. They felt quite welcome in the home of a rancher who told them he raises bucking stock for rodeos, but they hadn’t yet figured out whether that referred to bucking broncos, bulls or both.
They would have another night to solve that mystery. In the meantime, it was time to climb aboard the big yellow school bus ferrying people to the day’s first plover stop.
The barely risen sun’s light raked across the shortgrass prairie as the bus, followed by a pickup towing a trailer with a couple of portable toilets, pulled off the county road into the Wineinger-Davis Ranch.
To the untrained observer, this stop was a bust: There seemed to be little but grass. But the more experienced bird-watchers among the group knew better. They pulled out their viewing scopes and binoculars – some sort of magnification is a must on this trip – and scanned the open field. Soon came the excited shout: “We’ve got plovers!”
Through the scope, several tiny birds ran to and fro on the prairie. When their backs were turned, they might as well have disappeared, so well camouflaged were they. But when the plovers turned to face their adoring public, the birds’ white breasts were almost shockingly bright.
The people who traveled hundreds of miles for a glimpse of this bird were all smiles, but of everyone there that morning, third-generation ranch owner Russell Davis had the biggest smile of all. And his smile undoubtedly had the most complicated backstory.
Davis never had much of an eye for spotting birds, but he has a rancher’s eye for spotting pickup trucks. When he saw a Toyota pickup parked on his property one morning in 2002, he could tell at a glance it didn’t belong to anyone from around Karval.
“If you know our country, you know you don’t see too many Toyotas,” Davis said.
The truck was parked near a prairie dog colony, so he guessed it was a prairie dog hunter. As he drove up, however, he saw it was a young woman with khaki shorts and binoculars. He stepped out of his American-made pickup and introduced himself. Her response was as simple as it was utterly baffling.
“Mr. Davis, they’re everywhere!” she said, beaming with excitement.
“What are everywhere?” Davis replied.
“We’re standing in the middle of the prairie,” Davis replied.
He had no idea what she was talking about. Mountain plovers are little birds that nest on the ground, she explained. He still had no idea what she was talking about – he’d lived on this ranch nearly his whole life and had never seen any birds that matched her description.
The stranger said she was with the nonprofit known as the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, and that she was here because the federal government wanted to list the mountain plover as an endangered species – and Davis didn’t need to hear anymore.
“Well, young lady, I think it’s time for you to leave,” he said.
Davis was not in a good mood when the apologetic researcher drove off. Looking back nearly two decades later, he sees that encounter in a completely different light.
“That day changed my life in a very positive way,” Davis says now.
For the rest of the story see the March/April issue of Colorado Life.