Wednesday 6 August 2014

Mountain Plover nest conservation on private crop fields. Guest blog by Angela Dwyer.

The Mountain Plover, often known as “Prairie Ghost”, is a small ground nesting bird living in the shortgrass prairie ecoregion of Rocky Mountain West of North America.  

Since the 1920’s, native shortgrass prairie habitat has diminished as much as 52% due to conversion of these grasslands to cropland agriculture, diminished fire frequency, destruction of prairie dog towns and decline of native grazers.  With the decline in native prairie habitat, so too have Mountain Plover populations declined. Since the 1960’s, the plover’s population has decreased approximately 3% per year.  However this shortgrass specialist has adapted to the ever-changing landscape.  In Nebraska Mountain Plover breed only on privately-owned lands, predominantly bare crop fields.  Its breeding range in the north-east represents less than 5% of the US continental population, and it is state listed as threatened. This pair below blends is well in the fallow crop field, camouflage excellent for minimizing predation on nests.

Adult pair on fallow field.
Photo: Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory (RMBO) staff.

Although farmed crop fields provide good nesting habitat in this altered landscape, the risk of nest loss from farming equipment is high. Therefore, we have adopted an innovative technique to “mark” nests found on crop fields, conceived by Fritz Knopf.  Once a nest is found, they are marked with brightly colored tall stakes so a landowner driving a tractor can farm around a nest; this protects nests and causes little to no loss in farming productivity.

Farming operations.
Photo: Larry Snyder.

This method of locating and marking nests has been a highlight for Mountain Plover conservation in Nebraska. In particular success is due to landowner involvement for more than a decade. Thirteen private landowners gave us permission back in 2001 to survey their crop fields for plover nests and in 2014, 79 landowners allowed us access to their fields. In addition many landowners find nests themselves and report to us. Below is one of our devoted landowners marking a plover nests on his field.

Landowner marking nest site.
Photo: Larry Snyder.

Since plovers prefer open bare-ground for nesting, it is not a stretch to see the Mountain Plover using recently farmed crop fields for nesting.  Since the first nest was found in 2001, on average 66 nests are located on crop fields annually with an average hatching success rate around 70%; meaning nests are doing great on crop field habitat. A Mountain Plover nest usually has three speckled eggs. The male will create two nests out in the open soil and often decorate with bits of old wheat stubble (harvested debris).  The female will lay 3 eggs in the first nest and 3 eggs in the second nest. This mating strategy is known as “double clutching” however it is not known whether Mountain Plovers are monogamous, the second round of eggs could be from an imposing male!

Mountain Plover nest on crop field.
Photo: Clay Edmondson.

Below these newly hatched chicks are precocial and can walk and feed when only a few hours old. they will remain in the nest area for about a day until all the chicks hatch. The adult may move the brood up to 2km away from the hatch site in search of adequate food and protection from predator!

Newly hatched chicks.
Photo: Ross Lock.

The male and female each have a nest to tend so it is common for adults to spend hours away from the nest when conditions are good, such as during the cool early mornings, to forage. This adult incubates her eggs in the hot Nebraska sun.

Incubating adult Mountain Plover.
Photo: Clay Edmondson.

Angela Dwyer,
Wildlife Biologist
Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, Fort Collins, Colorado, USA.

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