This is Playa Country — a weekly look at the wildlife, wetlands and prairies of the western Great Plains, and the people who manage them — brought to you by Playa Lakes Joint Venture, an organization dedicated to conserving birds and bird habitat.
This year, 2016, marks the centennial of the first Migratory Bird Treaty, which the United States signed with Great Britain on behalf of Canada. That treaty and the three that followed — with Japan, Russia and Mexico — form the cornerstones of our efforts to conserve migratory birds, like the Mountain Plover.
The Mountain Plover is a festival of contradictions. It’s a shorebird — but most spend little time at the beach. The word “mountain” is in its name, but it’s a native of the shortgrass prairie. I asked Tammy Vercauteren, the executive director of the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, why the Mountain Plover matters. One reason, she says, is that they love to feast on insects.
“Especially during the breeding season. Birds can’t usually control large insect outbreaks after they’ve begun, but under normal conditions they can actually suppress the number of insects, keeping them below the outbreak levels.”
This can be very helpful to the crop producer because this bird sticks close to the fields. But, that also is a problem. The bird is a ground nester, in fact, often they nest in the middle of fields.
“In May, when the Mountain Plovers start showing up and we’re doing a lot of field work again, we try to keep an eye out for the birds in the fields that we’re working.”
Meet Colby Lukassen, a producer at Kimball, Nebraska.
“Every so often you come across a bird that’s acting protective. That would be about the time when you want to shut the tractor down and get out and take a look, see if you can find a nest. It’s usually pretty evident if there’s going to be a nest because the bird will be very protective and try attacking the tractor.”
Kimball is in the southwest corner of the Nebraska panhandle.
“We try to keep an eye out for all of them and make sure we don’t go over a nest. We’ll farm around it and then we’ll call up Larry. He’ll come out and mark it.”
He’s talking about Larry Snyder. Larry works for the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies as a sort of Mountain Plover guardian. In cooperation with farmers, he scouts Plover nests, and marks them, then producers farm around them.
“The idea here is just to get them to move so we can locate them. Once we locate a bird, then we back off till we can barely see them and watch them return to the nest.”
Then Larry has a nest marking system the landowners are familiar with, according to Colby Lukassen, they farm around the plover nests.
“Then he keeps an eye on it throughout the year and waits until it hatches. Then he let’s us know and we can continue to farm that part of the land.”
The Mountain Plover’s population numbers are declining, and Snyder says the Bird Conservancy offers an incentive to farmers to help protect the bird.
“We do offer a cash incentive to landowners for farming around these Mountain Plover nests in a tilled field. If our field crew comes out and locates the nest, we give them $100 to defer tillage around that nest site. If the landowner goes out and makes the effort on his own of locating the nest and reporting it to a field crew and allowing us to do research on that nest, we pay them $200 a nest.”
He says it’s all about education.
“Taking the landowner out and introducing him to the bird, getting him more familiar with it, is a big key to the conservation of this species in Nebraska.”
They’ve been marking these Mountain Plover nests several years now. I wondered whether this was having a positive effect on bird populations.
“We have one particular spot of land that’s pretty hot. We started off with two or three, and I think last year we had 13 nests.”
Colby Lukassen talking about his experience.
“That seems to be about the average now. Seems like what Larry is doing is really helping these birds, and they wanted to come back and lay eggs again, so it’s really great.”
You’ve been listening to Playa Country, a weekly show about the wildlife, people and landscapes of the western Great Plains. This program is made possible by the Playa Lakes and Rainwater Basin Joint Ventures.
Original broadcast: April 2016