I first noticed the Mongolian Plover in a bird book as an early teen. This handsome shorebird jumped off the page, sporting a dapper red vest and Zorro-esque black mask. The name “Mongolian Plover” immediately captured my imagination. I pictured this bird scurrying out of the way across the Mongolian steppes, flushing in front of armies of horses carrying iron-clad Mongol soldiers galloping at breakneck speeds into battle. I never dreamed I’d travel to Mongolia in my early twenties, and stare up at the expansive sky which mirrored the landscape in its vastness and texture. I traveled around the country on horseback, by camel, and hanging out of old Soviet-era vans, birding lakes, mudflats, deserts, and high-alpine steppes, and was successful finding one of the few Mongolian birds I knew about before I set foot in the country. While abroad I saw a Greater sand plover, which would remain the only sand-plover on my life list until 2010, when I had great comparisons of both Greater and Lesser side-by-side along Mida Creek near Watamu, Kenya, noting overall size and shape of the bill as a key separator between the two species.
Early in my Big Year, I stopped on the same shorebird page, remembering my time in Mongolia as I mulled over the name sand plover. A twinge of curiosity shot through me as I considered the fact that I may actually see one of these handsome devils if things worked out this year. I mentally added it to my 'must see' list, and did some investigating as to what it would take to see one in North America. I found that the most reliable spot to see sand plovers was in the Spring and fall on St. Lawrence island in Alaska, near the town of Gambell. It seemed Lesser Sand Plover was almost annual there, occurring each Fall in small numbers. For most of my Big Year, I believed Gambell to be out of my reach, and I avoided believing I could actually go there during spring migration, as I had committed funds I didn’t have and time to venturing to Attu, which I voted the “harder to get to” category of Alaskan birding locations. The Fall presented a different story, and with the help of family, friends, and the birding community, I raised some funds to get up to Gambell to kick off a Fall birding adventure. Despite one report of a sand-plover, nobody could re-locate the bird, and rumors swirled as strongly as the north wind blew, discouraging many migrants from making it across from Russia.
On October 2, 2016 two Arizona birders found a Lesser Sand-plover at Round Cedar lake near Flagstaff, Arizona. After no confirmed records of this species found this Fall in Alaska, this was a good bird, and one I very much had hoped to see. To be honest, my memories of seeing this bird in Mongolia and again in Kenya had faded, and throughout the year I poured over the plates in Rare Birds of North America, and each time I looked at it I wanted to see one again. As soon as I had the chance, I flew to Los Angeles, rented a car, and drove to Arizona to see it. I'd arrived 24 hours too late. The bird had gone.
Fortuitously, I received a second-chance while birding with Laura Keene a week later in California. We'd finished our day's search for the Yellow-green Vireo reported on Pt. Reyes, and we both drove to San Jose so she could return her rental car and we'd carpool in my rental car, which I'd already extended. After leaving the Bay area, I checked Facebook and saw a post of a "possible" Lesser sand-plover from California- right where we'd just been! The photos sure looked good for Mongolian plover, and after returning her car we headed back north to be in position to find the bird early the next morning.
A cold breeze rolled off the sand dunes toward the Pacific Ocean as I hustled down the beach before sunrise the following morning. I was outpacing another birder, who was hurrying to keep up and keep a conversation with me. Coincidentally, we'd both left the parking lot at the same time heading north along the beach to the GPS points of yesterday's exciting discovery by Matt Lau- a beautiful Mongolian Plover, which I determined from photos was a different individual than the Arizona bird the week before. I wasn't trying to ditch him, but we had different walking speeds, and I'd learned two things this year: first, birders give much better interviews after they see the bird, and recording an interview in the wind pretty much defeats the purpose of recording it. I've listened to dozens of interviews at night, realizing the wind was my main subject, and I'd lost the coherence of spoken words, unable to type out and preserve the wisdom and humor I'd heard earlier in the day.
Within the hour, I was still weaving my way up the beach, trying to spot any signs of Snowy Plovers. I saw Sanderlings running around frantically along the shoreline, scoped Scoters diving in the choppy surf, and admired the subtle differences between the ravens and crows which both gorged on the tidal feast left on the beach from the night before. I continued to walk at a brisk pace, prepared to hike 5 or 6 miles along the beach if necessary, intent on doing so quickly, as Laura was working on her computer in the car, and we had a Yellow-green Vireo to search for next. As the sun's golden rays arced over the eastern horizon, illuminating the beach in front of me, I spotted several small round white shapes darting across the beach ahead. I'd found the Snowy Plovers! The plumage of this species has evolved over time to perfectly match the color of the sand, making them near-invisible to predators when they crouch low in their burrows, becoming just another lump in the contour of the shoreline. I counted over 30 Snowy plovers, and with them was a larger, darker lump facing away from me. I'd spotted the bird!