In the summers the prairie was flush with grouse, prairie chickens, and curlews with their pink underwings lovely as a flash of sunset cloud. Then there was the dainty little prairie plover that rose singly, at forty, fifty yards and soared gently away, rising gradually, such ready and toothsome game for the hunter. Wright, an early hide man from around Dodge, once killed nearly two hundred in an hour for an entourage of eastern sportsmen. Sandoz 1954
First collected by John Kirk Townsend in 1834 along the Sweetwater River of Wyoming and named by John James Audubon as the Rocky Mountain Plover, the Mountain Plover is a North American endemic that breeds on the dry tablelands of the western Great Plains, and winters in dry grasslands and deserts of northern Mexico and California. An unwary species, it often faces away from an observer and squats motionless in response to disturbance. This behavior results in the drably marked bird virtually disappearing and has fostered the nickname "Prairie Ghost" among those who seek it out.
The Mountain Plover is a species of xeric tablelands with sparse, low vegetation, especially where those landscapes hosted native herbivores such as prairie dogs (Cynomys spp.), bison (Bison bison), and pronghorns (Antilocapra americana). The plover also nests in short-grass prairie sites with either a history of disturbance by native herbivores, or a recent disturbance event such as lightning-strike fires. In recent times, many plovers have nested on agricultural fields that are barren when birds arrive on breeding grounds in spring. Most plovers winter in the Central, Imperial and San Joaquin valleys of California. These valleys historically supported large numbers of Tule elk (Cervus elaphus), pronghorns and kangaroo rats (Dipodomys spp.) that created a micro-landscape similar to the nesting grounds. Scattered flocks of plover also regularly winter eastward to s.-central and w. Texas, and in n. Mexico.
Throughout its range, this plover arrives on its breeding grounds in late March and April, two months before warm-season grasses begin to green. Some adults and fledged chicks begin leaving the breeding grounds by mid July and wander throughout the southwestern plains and deserts until early November, when they arrive at the wintering grounds and gather, localized, in small flocks. Spring migration, apparently directed around the suthern extents of the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains to the breeding grounds, is much faster.
Because the continental population of the Mountain Plover apparently declined three percent or more per year during the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, the species was proposed for listing as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1999, but was subsequently withdrawn in 2003. Individuals in California may spend up to seventy-five percent of their time on agricultural fields where they are exposed to an array of pesticides, although no direct effects of pesticides on reproductive success or survival have been detected. In the southern part of the breeding range, birds also nest on tilled fields. Although nests are lost to tillage practices during incubation, nest success on tilled fields currently appears compensatory rather than additive to losses due to predation in native habitats.