Monday 10/03/2016 06:41MST: I am standing on a berm next to Gary. The sun has just peeked over the nearby hills to the east and is beginning light up the mud flat and shallow pond in front of us. A strong wind out of the southwest is blowing making it feel cold. We are scoping the far shoreline of the small pond and the mud flats further away for any sign of motion. The others are on another nearby rise and Dave is checking out a small wet area to the south. We have been here for thirty minutes, the only shorebirds around were four roosting Long-billed Dowitchers and they have left. A Common Tern flies over raising the excitement level somewhat but it to departs. Faces are growing long, almost as long as the drive we’ve just made. And then to the east Gary and I hear a plover calling from a small wet area I was thinking about investigating. Gary makes the call - Lesser Sand-Plover!
Our party also includes Deb, Janine, and Chris. We left Tucson at quarter to 01:00AM (I left Green Valley an hour earlier). Upon arriving we meet up with Andrew, Dave, Mark, & Molly, they had stayed the night in Flagstaff and arrived at Round Cedar Lake a few minutes before us. There were a few others present however I focused on searching for the quarry and did not mingling with the other birders much.
Whether intentional or not a small plover could easily conceal itself amongst clods of dirt and small furrows, particularly with the low angle of the sunlight early in the morning. We fortune seekers came to this remote location & isolate site with the hopes of seeing a vagrant shorebird discovered & identified Sunday by Chuck LaRue and Jason Wilder. The site is a playa where someone has scraped the soil leaving several shallow depressions each accompanied by pile of dirt. The depressions hold water and the berms provide a good vantage point. Good for birds and birders.
Upon calling, the Lesser Sand-Plover flies from its easterly hiding spot to the west around our group of birders and lands near the far edge of the small pond closest to us. The bird called for the duration of its flight. Whether the plover was calling before it flew or immediately after taking flight is not known and really doesn’t matter much at this point. It would have been nice to get a recording of the call but again, it really doesn’t matter – we can identify this thing visually.
For the next hour and forty minutes we take in as much of this bird as possible. I personally bounce between taking photographs including two videos and studying it through the scope. Others are doing the same. There are minor and respectful celebrations - high-fives, handshakes, fist pumps and knockings, and a few hugs.
Lesser Sand-Plover was once referred to as Mongolian Plover in North America. I suspect that some taxonomic committee in Europe or Asia determined that the birds once known as Mongolian Plover were merely a form of the Lesser Sand-Plover, they were lumped and the English name Lesser Sand-Plover now refers to both. The AOU at least adopted the name Lesser Sand-Plover in 2004. Interestingly (mildly) the scientific name of the ‘old’ Mongolian Plover Charadrius mongolus is also the scientific name of the ‘new’ Lesser Sand-Plover. And the scientific name of the subspecies of Lesser Sand-Plover that so far has been found in North America is Charadrius mongolus mongolus, the Mongolian Lesser Sand-Plover. What I am trying to say with all this useless information is that I much prefer the English name “Mongolian Plover”.
Lesser Sand-Plovers are rare vagrants to North America. Most of the records are from Alaska and particularly the Aleutian and Bering Sea Islands as well as around Nome and Barrow. There are a smattering of records along the west coast from Vancouver, BC to San Diego, CA and a handful of records in the east. This observation is the first for the interior of the western US. Lesser Sand-Plovers breeding range is from the Himalayas to northeast Siberia and apparently western Alaska. They spend the winter in coastal areas of India, Southeast Asia, and Australia. Their migration is typically through East Asia and the southwest Pacific Ocean. Clearly this bird is way off track. Normally a coastal species, this individual is more than 300 miles from the nearest coastline (Rocky Point) and 400 miles due east of Los Angeles.
Long into our observation of the plover a Tundra Peregrine Falcon shows on the scene. It was migrating and apparently hungry. This little scape in the earth didn’t off much. The little plover was a candidate for the falcon, definitely more meat than on the Barn Swallows and Horned Larks flying by. The Lesser Sand-Plover ceased foraging, that is it froze and became another dirt clod until the falcon departed. After another thirty minutes we too departed to look for a meal at the IHOP in Flagstaff.