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Arts & Life

Little Bird Brings Big Excitement To One Small Colorado Town

Ron Knight
Mountain Plover, photographed near Briggsdale, Colorado

Around the end of April, a small, brown and white bird arrives on Colorado's eastern plains. The mountain plover may not seem like much to some, but it draws dozens of bird watching enthusiasts to the tiny community of Karval -- midway between Limon and La Junta -- for the annual Mountain Plover Festival.

For the festival, now in its 11th year, many of Karval’s farmers and ranchers do something rather unusual – they open up their land and their homes to host festival attendees.

"Bird Conservancy of the Rockies started this festival with us, and they do a great job of working with private landowners -- not trying to change things, but trying to broaden perspectives," says Katie Merewether, whose family has owned a ranch in Karval for more than a century. "They’re really interested in preserving the birds as part of a long term goal, not just a bird, but ecosystems for the long term. And part of that is working with ranchers and farmers who live on the land, and who are in it for the long term."

Bird watchers are chauffeured around the land in a school bus and get to talk with local farmers and ranchers about what they’re doing to increase habitat for the Mountain Plover. At night they can stay with a local farmer for a more immersive experience.

"It’s a way to get to know the people and how we live, not just where we live," Merewether says.  

Bad weather in 2016 may have dampened sightings of the bird, but certainly not birders' enthusiasm for it. This year’s festival takes place April 28 – 30, 2017.

Interview highlights with rancher Katie Merewether

For some people the desire to spot a Mountain Plover comes close to an obsession. What is it about this little bird?

Credit Peter Pearsall / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Merewether: They're hard to spot. It's just not a common bird. It was almost listed [as endangered], so it is in low numbers. But it's also the fact that it mostly lives on these private lands, so areas where you're going to get to see them are hard to gain access to. We've opened up all of our lands for people who come to this festival to view.

You also have to be a good birder to spot them. Some birds -- like a hawk – they're really obvious to see, and if you get enough time you can identify them. A plover is really just hard to see -- and if you're not careful, even if you do see it, you’re going to think it's something else that's not very exciting.

Some farmers and ranchers have changed their practices to conserve the Mountain Plover. What does that entail, and why do they do it?

Merewether: One of the reasons is that [the birds] really like fields and they like grazed properties – most of which is private land, which is really hard to get access to.

A researcher I know started doing work and found they're more common in our area than anyone had supposed. She was working personally with a rancher who could not be said to be the most conservation-minded of fellows – but it turned out the interests of conservation helped his ranch long-term. So he was able to put a conservation easement on there, and get support from the state to evolve his ranching so that he was protecting the land.

Our farmers in the area [now] have all learned to recognize and they will go out and search for nests in fields so they don’t plow them up and destroy them.

What have you gained from conservation efforts and being part of the festival?

Merewether: A certain amount of conservation is just getting people to know what they have. A lot of ranchers in the area didn’t know what a plover was before the bird conservancy said, "Hey, you have this cool bird – did you know that?" So it's a great opportunity to learn what you have. It makes you appreciate your own land more.

We're all aware of coyotes and prairie dogs and foxes and hawks and eagles – those are big, charismatic animals. But there are also so many species of birds that take advantage of your land as well – and the more you can delve into that, the better picture you get of the whole thing, and the more interesting it is.

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