Wonder of Wonders in Navajo Nation, Coconino County, AZ

Saturday, October 8th
Another extremely rare bird was discovered in Arizona last Sunday, October 2nd, when birders Jason Wilder and Chuck Larue decided to check a very remote area on Navajo Land, northeast of Flagstaff. What they found at Round Cedar Lake (two depressions of shallow water in reddish-brown desert) was a LESSER SAND PLOVER. With a name like that, you might think this small wading shorebird could be found on a beach near you in Canada or USA, but it would be extraordinary for it to show up there.

Why? It breeds in Siberia, that very extensive area of northern Russia that, in its most eastern extension reaches toward Alaska. So, we have Siberia reaching toward mainland Alaska and we have Attu Island, the westernmost point of land in the USA (one of the Aleutian Islands) reaching toward Siberia. Makes sense to look for the bird on Attu - a desolate place that Big-Year Birders flock to in search of such Asian rarities. (by hiring a private plane)

After breeding, the LESSER SAND PLOVER forms migratory flocks from its various breeding grounds (Mongolia, the Himalayas as well as Siberia) and flies off in July toward Africa, the Middle East and many other southern countries and continents to spend the winter.

The Plover’s habitat for nesting (February-July) includes tundra, deserts and steppe (vast treeless grasslands with little rainfall). Photos below will show similar habitat where we found the bird today on Navajo land.

The bird winters on tidal flats, sandy beaches, estuaries, mud-flats and streams. So, I’m wondering if it intends to spend the winter at Round Cedar Lake where it has the two shallow lakes to itself, or whether it intends to fill up on all the bugs and worms it can find there to continue its migration. The LESSER SAND PLOVER we observed appeared to be a juvenile.

Lesser Sand Plover (sometimes called "Mongolian Plover") was patrolling the edges of two shallow lakes- rather small for us to find but other birders present got us onto it immediately

Our group: Moe at the spotting scope, Muriel & Marceline; also other Arizona birders, Ken Murphy (left) and Jeremy Medina (rear).
Habitat where Round Cedar Lake fills two depression in this desert

Our dirt entrance road continued on past the lakes, cutting between them, so we watched the LESSER SAND PLOVER fly from the pond on the north where we first located it, to the one south where we turned and moved to that lake. In both cases, the bird would walk/run a short distance, stop; then go again. We observed it getting bugs from the top of the lake water but it also pecked in the muddy shoreline a lot.

Distant photo of the LESSER SAND PLOVER where it pecked its way along the far shore of the north pond
Unlike the Semi-palmated Plover, its white throat line doesn't continue around to its back. Its nape is gray/brown. 
Lesser Sand Plover a/k/a Mongolian Sand Plover

Questions fill my mind:
How did just one Lesser Sand Plover end up at Round Cedar Lake?
How long had it been there before being discovered?
Was it flying south when Hurricane Newton came north from Mexico through the Gulf of California in early September bringing the bird north on its swirling winds? (as it did with the Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel that landed in Riverview Lake, Mesa, not far from Bass Pro)

With Moe Bell, Muriel Neddermeyer and Marceline VandeWater, I stayed and watched the LESSER SAND PLOVER for an hour. We were rewarded with the plover coming close to us to take a bath. 

Bath time, close enough for me to get some awesome photos:

This photo by Muriel Neddermeyer
With feathers fluffed and preening complete, the LESSER SAND PLOVER starts walking again

Other birds present included a Barn Swallow, a couple American Pipits and a flock of Horned Larks. This solitary LESSER SAND PLOVER had this place all to itself for foraging and I'm thinking it may like to stay.

Since we had arrived by 8 a.m., we stopped and birded at Picture Canyon and Kachina Wetlands on our return home. Lightning hurried us away from Kachina, and Moe had to find his way through a torrential downpour that included hail as we drove south on I-17.

The bird's duration at this spot remains unknown. But to birders who definitely want to see such a rarity, it's timeline began last Sunday, October 2nd. I'm grateful that the LESSER SAND PLOVER was still here a week later for our Phoenix-area group as well as for others (including out-of-state birders).

Memorable day, indeed!

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