A rare and secretive grassland bird that migrates between the Great Plains and California’s grassy valleys is increasingly turning up in Imperial Valley agricultural fields (south of the Salton Sea in southern California), according to a recent survey organized by Audubon California. If this trend continues, the Mountain Plover’s shifting habitat could have implications for both agricultural landowners as well as alternative energy producers eyeing many of these lands for solar energy development. (photo by Glen Tepke)
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service asked Audubon California to perform the survey last year after a 2011 survey showed startling declines in Mountain Plovers in California, where the bird winters. The 2012 survey showed higher numbers of the birds in the Golden State, but also provided more evidence for the shift toward agricultural fields.
“Even though our latest count showed more Mountain Plovers, the size of its population is still low,” said Andrea Jones, Audubon California’s director of Important Bird Areas. “This has traditionally been a grassland bird, but as those habitats have declined, the bird is adapting to agricultural areas, and that should give us a lot to think about in terms of habitat management.”
The Mountain Plover is a small terrestrial shorebird that inhabits relatively flat lands with very short, sparse vegetation. It breeds in the western Great Plains and Rocky Mountain States. Unlike many shorebirds that winter at coastal locations, Mountain Plovers spend their winters in open habitats of interior California, Arizona, Texas, and Mexico. More than 50 percent of the world’s population of this unique species spends the winter in California.
The survey, conducted in early 2012, spotted 3,290 Mountain Plovers among 36 flocks. This was a dramatic improvement over 2011, when only 1,235 birds were counted in 13 flocks. Imperial Valley accounted for 89 percent of the birds detected during the survey in 2012. In 2011 and 2012, agricultural fields accounted for 79 percent and 97 percent of Mountain Plover observations, respectively. The surveys were funded by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
While the presence of birds on agricultural fields has significance for land managers, it also has ramifications for those interested in converting these fields to solar energy development. Imperial Valley is currently experiencing a push to convert degraded agricultural fields (which are key habitat for Mountain Plover) to solar. Thousands of these acres are currently under development or have current permit applications for solar energy.
Low population numbers recently prompted the USFWS service to consider the Mountain Plover for protection under the Endangered Species Act. While it ultimately opted not to list the species, the USFWS is keeping a close eye on the bird’s progress.
“Absent the kind of protections that the Mountain Plover would receive from listing under the Endangered Species Act, we will have to work particularly hard to ensure that this iconic species remains a part of the natural legacy of California and the West,” said Jones.