On first glance, the mountain plover might not look like much. The robin-sized bird’s plumage—brown-tan with a cream-colored belly and black patches on the forehead and tail—can’t compete with the prairie chicken’s bold pattern or the alluring blue feathers of a pinyon jay or lazuli bunting. In fact, its earthy tones make the mountain plover difficult to spot amid its natural habit, the plains (bird watchers agree that putting “mountain” in the creature’s name wasn’t the best idea).

Despite its apparent simplicity, the mountain plover has become something of a mascot for the eastern Colorado town of Karval. The tiny Lincoln County community roughly 70 miles east of Colorado Springs has been hosting the Mountain Plover Festival for 15 years, and after a two-year break courtesy of the pandemic, the celebration will return April 29 through May 1. The festival, along with the cute brown bird at the center of the celebration, has invigorated the town and helped bridge the divide between farmers and conservationists—and could help turn Karval into a grassland research hub.

Like the winged insectivore itself, the Mountain Plover Festival is small. The largest turnouts number just a few dozen, estimates Katie Merewether, a private lands wildlife biologist with the nonprofit Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, who grew up in Karval and helps with the event each year. That’s partially because serious birders are the ones most likely to feel the festival’s pull. Mountain plovers make their nests in prairie dog towns, and because so much of the plains have been turned over to agriculture, the birds live almost exclusively on private land. “Birders who don’t own private land or their own private backyard prairie dog town don’t see the mountain plover very often,” Merewether says. She explains that the festival is a rare opportunity to explore those oft-restricted acres: “A lot of birders are list driven, so they are always looking for something new to check off their list.”

Of course, an influx of around 35 visitors isn’t nothing for a town with a population just over 500, according to recent census data. Should the crowd grow larger, the Karval Community Alliance, the nonprofit that runs the festival, wouldn’t be able to offer the one-on-one attention attendees so enjoy.

An adult mountain plover lures the photographer away from its nest during the Mountain Plover Festival in Karval. Photo courtesy of Karval Community Alliance

Because the nearest hotel is 30 miles away, Karval residents, many of whom are farmers and ranchers, invite festival-goers to stay on their property. Katie Merewether’s father and the executive director of the Karval Community Alliance, Dan Merewether, frequently houses a few attendees on his 4,000 acre cow breeding operation (a couple will stay there this year). “It’s a great way to meet nice people,” Dan says, “and for the visitors to get to know what it’s really like to live on a ranch, if only for a couple of days.”

Along with private ranch tours and, if they’re really lucky, home-cooked meals, visitors are also treated to guided tours of the fallow fields where mountain plovers skitter about. Professionals like Katie locate nests and other promising locations ahead of time, so chances of seeing the bird are high, and the experts remain on-hand to answer questions, and explain what a particular plover is up to. They also describe conservation efforts—the mountain plover is considered to be “near threatened” as habitat loss causes its population to shrink.

That last part is especially important to folks like Katie, who, through her work with the Bird Conservancy, helps unite wildlife biologists, farmers, and ranchers on an important mission: Making agricultural practices as sustainable as possible for the flora and fauna that call the plains home. “There’s a narrative that ranching and raising cattle is bad for the environment,” she says. Those whose livelihood depends upon agriculture understandably chafe against that idea, and can be resistant to what they perceive as outsiders acting like they know the job (and the land) better. The discussion goes even more poorly if the conservation-minded biologist believes the “ranching is bad” narrative, because they can be unwilling to hear the landowner’s perspective.

Events like the Mountain Plover Festival help get the conversation started. “It has sort of broken any pre-existing notions in Karval about who biologists are, who environmentalists are,” Katie says. “And on the flip side, too, it breaks down those pre-existing ideas of what a rancher is.” Katie herself grew interested in biology after attending the festival when she was younger. “The experts then showed me that biology was a valid profession to go into,” she says. “Like, this is how it could look; it’s not just dramatic movies about dolphins.”

Attendees at the Mountain Plover Festival in Karval. Photo courtesy of the Karval Community Alliance

Forming bonds through the festival has helped agricultural workers and activists with Bird Conservancy of the Rockies team up to try science-backed land management techniques, such as allowing a field to lie dormant for a few years because the mountain plover prefer barren land. Some Karval ranchers and farmers have even entered into conservation easements—a form of legal agreement in which they work with land managers to permanently protect habitat on their property.

The Mountain Plover Festival’s benefits extend beyond farm and ranchland, though. Both Merewethers have also seen it reinvigorate Karval. The tiny town isn’t exactly a tourist destination, so the annual festival is one of its best opportunities to attract outsiders. “The festival allows people from Denver, Colorado Springs, even people from Europe, to visit and bring money to the community,” Katie says. Ticket prices can range between $50 and $250 per person, depending upon the package, and that money goes to the Karval Community Alliance, which then uses it to fund events and services in the town, such as the food pantry.

Some of that money will go toward the Alliance’s latest project, too: The nonprofit plans to turn the Karval community center into a research center, where scientists will be able to study oft-overlooked shortgrass prairie. “It just has some really cool wildlife that’s out there that isn’t as well-known because people can look over a prairie and not get into it like they can a forest,” Katie says. (The Alliance is still in the early planning stages for the lab, and hopes to apply for grants to fully fund the project.)

Smaller crowds like the one at this intimate festival don’t bring in millions, of course. But according to the Merewethers, that’s not entirely the point. “It’s not just outsiders who enjoy this,” Dan says. “We host a chuck wagon dinner the Saturday of the festival, and so many people from the community turn up to celebrate and be together.” Such moments are precious to a small place like Karval. “The town is not existing because it’s a huge economic source,” Katie says. “Small towns exist because we want them to exist.”

And thanks to the mountain plover, folks from all over get to experience what makes small towns special, even if just for a day. “I just encourage people to come out to the festival,” Dan says. “It’s a great way to get away from the noise and hustle in the city and get back to the elements. This big sky, the rolling prairie, and this little bird.”

(Read more: Where To Go Birding in Colorado)

Angela Ufheil
Angela Ufheil
Angela Ufheil is a Denver-based journalist and 5280's former digital senior associate editor.