On October 2nd, 2016, Jason Wilder and Chuck Larue were birding northeast of Flagstaff on the Navajo Indian Reservation near the town of Luepp. They drove into a small lake on the Reservation called Round Cedar Lake and started looking for any birds on the water. While they were birding, Jason spied an odd and small plover, which struck him as being something very odd. Arizona gets Semipalmated and Snowy Plovers during migrations, but this plover took Jason by surprise. While it looked a little similar to a Semipalmated Plover, it was off. Jason then asked the Arizona birding community and many folks thought the bird looked interesting right off the bat, myself included. People jumped on board and concluded that it was Arizona's first ever Lesser Sand-Plover, which was formerly known as Mongolian Plover. Something that made this small plover stand out from other small plovers was it's lack of a white hind collar and it's longer legs. The Lesser Sand-Plover is also from Asia, where it breeds. While this bird is an annual migrant on Alaska where it has bred, it is casual on the Pacific Coast, with almost all of it's western records exclusively being from the coast. This was a bird that wasn't on Arizona's radar, and it was seemingly miraculous that Jason and Chuck had such a discovery. And where do I play into this? Well, I was at work at the time when the news came in. My good buddy Gordon Karre got in contact with me, and we decided to drive up to Flagstaff that very night after I got off of work late, and then we would go to Round Cedar Lake at first light on Monday morning. On Monday morning, we would have to be out of the area by 8:30 or so, because I had to be into work again by 1 P.M.! As we arrived at Round Cedar Lake on October 3rd, we could see right away that it wasn't that scenic of a location...
Close to twenty other birders were there, most of which were some of Arizona's biggest and most well-known names. Everyone had their scopes on the mudflats and water edges. The previous night birders saw the bird continuing, but it was also tough to find at times when it would rest rather than forage. Close to 45 minutes went by, and all of us were getting nervous. There was no bird, and a lot of quiet other than a few Long-billed Dowitchers and a flyover Common Tern. Gordon and I thought we were maybe going to strike out. But out of the silence came a call. Several people heard it at once. It was this high pitched "kurrip" and it was the bird. Gary Rosenberg yelled out "that's it!". The Lesser Sand-Plover flew over and by the excited crowd and landed in a good view on the mudflats along the lake water. Everyone took looks through their scopes and started celebrating. It was a life bird for almost everyone there, for Gordon and I for sure.
And right in front of everyone sat this Lesser Sand-Plover, one that is not from North America and one that had never been found in Arizona before. It was also my 530th life bird!
From AZFO's David Vander Pluym and Lauren Harter, here is a status write up of this bird in North America: "If accepted by the ABC this would be a first state record. Approximately 30 records in the ABA area outside of Alaska, mainly from the Pacific Coast, about half the records are of adults in late June - August and the other half are of juveniles in September and October. Only one prior record from the interior outside of Alaska a late spring (18 June 1984) bird in Alberta. All records in the United States are of the C. m. mongolus group which is a potential split".
As well as a write up on the bird's field marks: "Smaller than nearby Killdeer with which it was associating, approximately like that of Semipalmated Plover (similar in posture). Superficially similar to other North American plovers such as Semipalmated and Snowy Plover but the struture of this bird differs with long legs, lack of white hindcollar, dark legs, and hint of rufous on the chest. Compared to even rarer Greater Sand-Plover, this bird appears smaller and dainty with shorter darker legs, a shorter and less robust bill with a blunt point, bolder wing stripe, and smudgy flanks. The (sub)species group is identified from the C. m. atrifrons groups of south central Asia by this birds smaller bill and legs with more of a bulky appearance, dusky smudging on the sides of the breast and onto the flanks, and contrast between the uppertail and back".
Here are a series of poor photographs I was able to capture of my most recent life bird, the Lesser Sand-Plover:
This picture shows at least 5 shadows of 5 pumped up birders, probably just a fifth of the pumped up birders that were there.
All from Round Cedar Lake, one that was never known much about before but will now never be forgotten...
Gordon and I watched the Lesser Sand-Plover for close to an hour before the drive back to Phoenix. What an incredible day and event it was in the history of Arizona birding. Although I don't chase birds much outside of Maricopa County, this was sure worth it. Thanks Gordon for the trip! It was all for a small plover from Asia!
Jason and Chuck's find was incredible. Most days in birding will result in species that are expected. But this discovery is a perfect example of why we should never stop birding and that we should keep checking our favorite birding spots time and time again. You never know what may show up at a small pond or barren lake near you!