A shorebird that is at home in arid western uplands, the Mountain Plover is a short-distance migrant. Mountain Plovers are territorial during the breeding season, but they migrate and winter in flocks. Migration takes place quite early after breeding, beginning in July.
The weather can be hot in the Mountain Plover’s breeding range, and adults are careful to shade their eggs and chicks. Flooding and hailstorms can cause mortality of nests, but predation is the main source of nest failure.
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Description of the Mountain Plover
The Mountain Plover is a pale shorebird with tan to brownish upperparts, white underparts, and short, dark bill.
Seasonal change in appearance
Winter birds have a buffy wash across the breast.
Juveniles resemble adults.
Arid grasslands and cultivated fields.
Forages by walking and running.
Breeds in the dry plains of the west-central U.S. and winters in California, Texas, and Mexico.
Mountain Plover migration takes place relatively early in the spring, in March or April.
Mountain Plovers are very mobile in the winter, not necessarily remaining in the same area for long.
Low whistles and harsh call notes are given.
- Other plovers of this size have black breast bands.
The nest is a scrape on the ground.
Color: Olive with darker markings.
Incubation and fledging:
– Young hatch at 28-31 days.
– Young fledge (leave the nest) shortly after hatching but remain with the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the Mountain Plover
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Mountain Plover – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
PODASOCYS MONTANUS (J. K. Townsend)
The above name is not especially appropriate for this species. The name, Rocky Mountain plover, would have been better, for its breeding range is mainly in the Rocky Mountain plateau. lt frequents elevated ground but it is not a bird of the mountains but of the dry plains. Coues (1874) says:
While most other plovers haunt the vicinity of water, to which some are almost confined, the present species is not in the least degree of aquatic habits, but, on the contrary, resorts to plains as dry and sterile as any of our country: sometimes the grassy prairies, with shore larks and titlarks, various ground sparrows, and the burrowing owl; sometimes sandy deserts, where the sage brush and the “chamizo,” the prickly pear and the Spanish bayonet, grow in full luxuriance. It approaches the Pacific, but will never be found on the beach itself, with maritime birds, nor even on the adjoining mud-flats or marshes, preferring the firm, grassy fields further back from the water.
Nesting: W. C. Bradbury (1918) has given us a very good acccount of the nesting habits of the mountain plover in Colorado. Of the nesting site and nest he says:
The ground is an open, rolling prairie, above the line of Irrigation, and is devoted to cattle range. It Is several miles from natural surface water and streams, and is covered with short-cropped buffalo or gramma grass, 2 or 3 inches high, with frequent bunches of dwarfed prickly pear, and an occasional cluster of stunted shrub or weed, rarely more than a foot in height With the six sets secured, In no instance had the parent bird taken advantage of the slight protection offered from sight or the elements by the nearby cactus, shrubs or uneven spots of ground. In each case, she had avoided such shelter, locating In the open, generally between the small grass hummocks and not on or in them; there was no evidence of the parent birds having given more thought to nest preparation or conceahnent, than does any other plover. In two of the sets the eggs were all individually embedded In the baked earth to a depth of one-eighth to one-fourth of an Inch, evidently having settled when the surface of the ground was reduced to soft mud by rain-water collecting in the slight depressions. As the ground dried up the eggs were fixed In a perfect mould or matrix, from which they could not roll. In fact they could hardly be disturbed at all by the sitting birds. The only nesting material was a small quantity of fine, dry rootlets and “crowns” of gramma grass, the eggs In some instances being slightly embedded In this lining. As It is also present In all other depressions on the prairie It Is highly probable that here as elsewhere It was deposited about the eggs by the wind and not through the agency of the birds themselves. The protective coloration of the nest and eggs, as well as of the rear view of the birds themselves, even when In motion, Is unsurpassed. In no instance, except one hereinafter noted, was the bird seen to leave the nest, nor was any nest found except in the Immediate vicinity of moving birds.
G. Hoskin (1893) writes:
The mountain plover builds its nest on open prairie. The first egg is laid on bare ground, and as the set Is finished and incubation advances the bird gradually makes a nest of dirt, pieces of hard grass, roots, etc. It takes five or six days to complete set of three eggs. I have never found more nor less than three eggs In a nest that I thought complete. Old birds will fly off the nest while a person on foot is 80 rods away, but will sit closely for man on horseback or in a buggy.
William G. Smith (1888) found three nests while traveling by wagon across the Laramie Plains in Wyoming. “They were all placed within 50 yards of the much-frequented roadway, and each time I saw the female sitting on the eggs. The old birds are very white which contrasts with the dark ground and causes them to be easlly seen.” The art of feigning lameness or injury, to entice the intruder away from eggs or young, seems to be very highly developed in this species. Mr. Smith speaks of one that seemed to be in a fit, as it lay on its side, within 6 feet of him, “apparently in strong convulsions.” Mr. Bradhury (1918) tells of one that, “spreading her wings horizontally to their extreme width while standing, then falling flat with her neck and wings extended their full length on the ground, at times with beak open, she retreated as he approached, or followed closely as he returned toward the nest.”
Eggs: The mountain plover lays almost invariably three eggs, occasionally only two, and four eggs have been recorded. They are ovate to short ovate in shape, with no gloss. The prevailing ground colors are “deep olive buff” or “dark olive buff”; some few are “chamois~~ and one pink set has a “light pinkish cinnamon” ground color. They are irregularly marked, but chiefly near the larger end, with small spots and scrawls of black, which sometimes form a ring near the larger end. The measurments of 58 eggs average 37.3 by 28.3 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 40 by 28.5, 37.5 by 29.2, 34.3 by 28.4, and 38.5 by 27 millimeters.
Young: Apparently both sexes incubate; an incubating male has been taken. William G. Smith says in his notes:
The young are very nimble when only a few days old, and it is quite a task to catch them. They do not attempt to hide. A peculiarity of these birds is, though three eggs are generally laid, I nover saw but two young with the o~d birds. I lived on the prairies for six years, a mile from any other habitation; I had every opportunity to observe the traits of these birds. When they are well able to run each of the old birds takes one to raise, and that meihod seems the rule.
Edward R. Warren’s (1912) observations do not agree with the above, for he has seen a parent with three young and has seen the young attempt to hide; but he says “it was easily seen when once found, for its colors did not blend particularly well with the ground it was on.
Plumages: In the downy young mountain plover the upper parts are “cream buff,” tinged with “chamois” on the crown, wings, and rump, shading off to buffy white on the throat and under parts; the crown, sides of the neck, occiput, back, wings, rump, and thighs are conspicuously spotted with black; the forehead is unmarked. Young birds, about half grown, show the juvenal plumage coming in on the back, scapulars, crown, and sides of the breast, with the wing quills bursting their sheaths.
In full juvenal plumage, in September, the crown, back, scapulars, and wing coverts are “buffy brown,” with “cinnamon-buff” edges, broadest on the wing coverts; the sides of the head are “pinkish buff” and the breast and flanks are suffused with the same color; the throat and belly are white. This plumage seems to be worn without much change, except by wear and fading, all through the first fall and winter. The upper parts are still mainly “buffy brown,” but with only the faintest trace of the edgings. The spring molt apparently hoes not involve the wing coverts and very few scapulars, so that young birds can bc recognized by these retained feathers. Adults have a partial prenuptial molt in March and April, involving the body plumage but not the wings and tail and not all the scapulars and wing coverts. The black markings on the head are acquired and the new feathers of the mantle are broadly tipped with “pinkish buff.” The complete postnuptial molt is accomplished in July and August. The winter plumage is similar to the nuptial, except that thc black loral patch is lacking and the black crown patch is replaccd by dull brown.
Food: Feeding on the dry upland plains and prairies, the mountain plover’s food consists almost wholly, if not entirely, of insects. Grasshoppers seem to be its principal food, but many crickets, beetles, and flies are eaten. It seems to be a wholly beneficial species. Grinnell, Bryant, and Storer (1918) quote Belding as saying “that he often found this plover in recently sown grain fields, but was never able to discover a single kernel of wheat in the stomachs of those he shot.”
Behavior: Coues (1874) writes:
They were not difficult of approach, and I had no difficulty in securing as many as I desired. On being disturbed by too near approach, they lower the head, run rapidly a few steps in a light, easy way, and then stop abruptly, drawing themselves up to their full height and looking around with timid yet unsuspicious glances. When forced to fly by persistent annoyance, they rise rapidly with quick wing beats and then proceed with alternate sailing and flapping, during the former action holding the wings decurved. They generally fly low over the ground and soon realight, taking a few mincing steps as they touch the ground; they then either squat low, in hopes of hiding, or stand on tip-toe, as it were, for a hetter view of what alarmed them.
Grinnell, Bryant, and Storer (1918) say: This plover is a flocking species found in bands of from fifteen to several hun dred Individuals. Often upon alighting after they have been in flight, the birds will immediately run to some distance, so that It is not always possible to follow them up easily as with other shore birds. The flocks fly low over the ground and are difficult to see, except when they wheel. As they do this the under surfaces of their wings show momentarily as silvery white flashes.
Aiken and Warren (1914) say: The mountain plover differs greatly in habits and characteristics from its near relative the kilideer. It shows no preference for wet ground but on the contrary frequents mesas or high rolling prairie laud, often remote from water. Their manner is quiet; they have no wailing cry; they run rapidly a short distance and stand silent and motionless with the head sunk low on the shoulders. Their unspotted plumage blends with the color of the dry grass and parched ground and makes them difficult to discover. But in August, when the young birds shift for themselves, they gather in flocks and repair to the vicinity of water holes and flooded fields.
William G. Smith says in his notes:
We have often foretold a hailstorm, which are very prevalent here in summer, by these birds coming near the house for protection; at these times they seem bewildered, and nothing will drive them away.
Voice: Coues (1874) says on this subject:
Their notes are rather peculiar, as compared with those of our other plovers, and vary a good deal, according to circumstances. When the birds are feeding at their leisure, and in no way apprehensive of danger, they utter a low and rather pleasing whistle, though In a somewhat drawling or rather lisping tone; but the note changes to a louder and higher one, sometimes sounding harshly.
Field marks: The mountain plover may be recognized as a med mm sized plover, dressed in plain colors. In the spring the black markings on the head are visible at short range, but otherwise it is dull, sandy brown above and white below, without the conspicuous markings of the killdeer. In flight its axill~rs and the under sides of its wings are conspicuously white.
Game: This species once figured as a game bird and many were shot and sold as game in the California markets. It was a f airsized bird of some food value, but it was not so highly prized, as a table bird, when compared with some others. John G. Tyler (1910) writes:
Had not the Federal law intervened these birds would soon have disappeared forever, as their habits made them a very easy victim for hunters. The birds feed in loose scattered flocks, ranging over much ground, but when sufficiently disturbed all the members of a company take wing and form into a dense flock which, after beating rapidly back and forth for a few moments, usually settles again within a few yards of the intruder, a full hundred birds often occupying a space no larger than 20 feet in diameter. As they alight each bird flattens itself upon the ground where its protective coloration renders it all but Invisible save for the winking of Its very large eyes.
As one old resident stated, a favorite method of hunting was to drive with a horse and buggy among the scattered birds and cause them to take wing, whereupon the horse was brought to a standstill until the birds had again settled on the ground, and in nearly every case this was within easy gun range. The hunter immediately “ground sluiced” them with one barrel just as they “squatted” and fired again as the survivors took wing. My informant stated that he once killed 65 birds with two shots, and this method very rarely netted less than 30. I was informed that this plover was rated as the best table bird in this part of the State and that parties sometimes came from points as far away as San Francisco to hunt them. Verily, as my friend remarked, “they don’t seam to be as plentiful as they were 25 years ago.”
Range: Western United States and Mexico; accidental in Florida and Massachusetts.
Breeding range: The mountain plover breeds north to Montana (Great Falls, Fort Benton, Big Sandy, and the mouth of Milk River); and North Dakota (Stump Lake). East to North Dakota (Stump Lake and probably Hankison); western South Dakota (2Edgemont); Nebraska (probably Harrison, probably Marsiand, North Platte, and Kearney) ; Kansas (Colby, Oakley, probably Hays, Garden City, and probably Fort Dodge); and Oklahoma (probably Camp Supply and Fort Cobb). South to Oklahoma (Fort Cobb); Texas (Washburn, Hereford, and probably Fort Davis); New Mexico (Otero County and Socorro County); and probably Arizona (Fort Whipple). West to probably Arizona (Fort Whipple); Colorado (probably Del Norte, Denver, Barr, and Loveland); Wyoming (Cheyenne, Laramie, probably Fort Bridger, and probably Dubois); Idaho (Pahsimeroi Valley); and Montana (Three Forks and Great Falls).
Winter range: The mountain plover has the curious habit of occupying a winter range that is farther west than its summer home. North to California (probably rarely Marysville) ; Arizona (Santa Rosa, Buenos Ayres, and Allaires Ranch); and Texas (San Antonio). East to Texas (San Antonio, Eagle Pass, Aransas River, and Brownsville) ; Tamaulipas (Matamoras) ; and Zacatecas (Zacatecas). South to Zacatecas (Zacatecas); and Lower California (La Paz). West to Lower California (La Paz) ; Sonora (Santa Rosa and Hermosillo); and California (San Diego, Santa Ana, Los Angeles, Fort Tejon, Alila, Paicines, probably Stockton, and probably rarely Marysville).
Spring Migration: Sufficient data are not available to clearly define the migratory flights of the mountain plover but among early dates of spring arrival are: Oklahoma, Norman, March 15; Colorado, Loveland, March 18, Burlington, March 22, Barr, March 23, Springfield, March 29, Denver, April 6, and Colorado Springs, April 19; Wyoming, Cheyenne, April 5, Big Piney, April 12, and Fort Sanders, April 21; South Dakota, Huron, April 16; and Montana, Big Sandy, May 4, and Fort Custer, May 12.
A late date of spring departure from California is Santa Ysabel, April 3.
Fall Migration: Early dates of fall arrival in California are: Firebaugh, September 11, and Montebello, September 15. Late dates of fall departure are Montana, Sun River, September 4, Camp Thorne, on the Yellowstone, September 13, and Big Sandy, September 18; South Dakota, Forestburg, September 20; Nebraska, Monroe Canyon, September 27; Wyoming, Efell, September 4, and Sweetwater, September 13; Colorado, Barr, October 12, and Beloit, October 15; and New Mexico, Santa Rosa, September 27, and Stinking Spring Lake, October 1.
Casual records: The mountain plover has been detected outside of its normal range on but few occasions, three of which, curiously enough, were in Florida. A flock of six was noted on December 1, 1870, at Key West, and one specimen obtained (Maynard); B. W. Williams records several at St. James Island betweeft July 20 and August 1, 1901; and on December 17, 1927, B. J. Longstreet secured a specimen at Daytona Beach. The oniy other record is one for Massachusetts, an immature male, taken at North Beach, near Chatham, on October 28, 1916, and preserved in the collections of the Boston Society of Natural History (Brooks).
The species is unknown from Canada. During the international boundary survey, Doctor Cones found mountain plover on Frenchman Creek and obtained a specimen that is now in the British Museum. This is reported as being labeled “forty-ninth parallel,” but the point of collection was probably well within the present State of Montana.
Egg dates: Colorado and Kansas: 74 records, April 30 to June 16; 37 records, May 14 to 26. Montana and Wyoming: 4 records, May 22 to July 9.