March 27, 2014 Updated: March 27, 2014 at 2:46 pm
KARVAL - Filled with tumbleweeds, cow patties and dust, the fields surrounding this century-old homesteaders' outpost harbor an unlikely secret.
They're where a rare bird goes to get busy.
Every April, a migration of mountain plover on the prowl turns tiny Karval - population 30 - into a breeding ground.
In turn, residents of the unincorporated farming community 80 miles east of Colorado Springs start spiffing up their guest rooms for visitors who flock here for a glimpse of the plover, a rarely seen native of the West also known as the "Ghost of the Prairie."
It's all part of Karval's annual Mountain Plover Festival - what organizers bill as a one-of-a-kind birding tour in which ranchers feed and lodge festival-goers and offer guided tours of nesting sites, which consist of little more than scratches in the ground on bare or recently plowed fields.
Along the way, visitors receive a privileged glimpse into the challenges and pleasures of life on a high-desert prairie, courtesy of working farmers who are in some cases second- or third-generation homesteaders.
"We want people to come see what it's like to live and work out here, to learn it from people who are involved in agriculture," said Dan Merewether, the treasurer for the Karval Community Alliance, which hosts the two-day festival set for April 25-26.
About to mark its eighth year, the Mountain Plover Festival draws roughly 30 people a year, temporarily doubling Karval's population with birders from the Front Range and beyond, including Canada, Wisconsin, Mississippi and Pennsylvania, organizers say.
A chuck wagon dinner held on the last night of the festival fed more than 100 people last year, including visitors from neighboring towns, in a crowd surpassed only during homecoming festivities.
Faced with hardships
The town is probably due for a boon. After years of drought, Karval in 2013 was afflicted with dust storms that buried fields in a fine brown dust and evoked reminders of the Dust Bowl, which wiped out the town's bean trade.
Today, tumbleweeds all but bury some of the vacant homes that line its residential intersection.
The town's only caf?closed last year. Its two dairies are a distant memory.
Faced with hardship like many of the state's rural, dry land farming communities, Karval has in the past turned to collective ingenuity for an answer.
When the Karval School recently fell under the threat of closure, for example, the school district responded by accepting online students, and the resulting boost in enrollment helped keep the school open, residents say.
Despite the creativity, shrinking enrollment means there are no longer any high school athletic events. With nine high school students, they can't field a team.
A school bus that fell into disuse has been repurposed to transport birders.
Attracting the notice of the birding community could be a way to "get a little infrastructure in here," Merewether said.
Merewether said the community alliance recently looked into building a gas station in town, until it determined that expenses related to installing phone lines for a credit card machine would exceed anticipated revenues.
Attitude changes toward bird
Despite all the high hopes for the plover, it took awhile for some of the town's residents to warm to the bird.
In 2002, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife proposal to consider the bird for protection under the Endangered Species Act sparked controversy in Colorado, with farmers and ranchers sounding alarms over potential actions to protect the nesting habitat.
According to Karval resident Jeff Thornton, any spring restrictions in the name of protecting the birds' nests would have dealt a crippling blow to his family's wheat farm.
"It would have been more than half our income," said Thornton, who argued that farmers can avoid the birds once they learn to identify them and become familiar with their nesting locations. "We would have had to do something else."
The federal listing wasn't approved, nor restrictions on growing. But the episode set into motion events that appear to have changed the town's attitude toward the plover.
After contacting the Colorado Farm Bureau for help, residents were put in touch with the Fort Collins-based Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory. The group staked the locations of nests, helping farmers avoid the eggs with farm equipment, and soon Karval became the site of a multiyear study that found the nesting bird population was in the hundreds, town residents say.
Thornton, initially "scared to death" of the bird and its feared effects on his farming, now advocates for the festival as a member of the community alliance.
A "life-list bird"
The birds, sandy brown with a bright white breast, disperse their nests and tend to spread out over large distances, revealing themselves in groups of two or three.
Mountain plovers are best glimpsed by the light reflecting from their breast. When they turn away from the viewer, the birds all but vanish from sight.
As the town grew more familiar with the mountain plover, an appreciation for it bloomed, and so did the idea for an annual festival.
Even among its fans, the plover is considered an odd bird.
Native to the American West, the southern Great Plains and portions of Alberta, Canada, it seeks out wide-open fields for its nests and tends to settle down next to prairie dog communities, whose grazing leaves bare ground favored by the plover.
Prairie dogs also leave plenty of dung to attract insects, on which the birds feed.
"Sometimes, we'll find a nest right next to the cow patty," said Seth Gallagher, a bird conservationist with the Rocky Mountain Bird Institute. "They like the shade."
To birders, mountain plovers are a "life-list bird" and elusive unless you know where to find them, Thornton said.
To folks in Karval, they are a natural resource worth protecting.
Said Merewether: "We can get along and live with the mountain plover and both benefit from the experience."
To attend the 2014 Mountain Plover Festival in Karval, April 25-26, register online or by mail as soon as possible, as space is limited.
A $200 registration fee covers all activities and expenses for one person for the two-day festival. The price for two people is $350. (Housing is not included.)
The fee for attending activities on April 25 is $50 for one and $80 for two. To attend all events April 26, including the chuck wagon dinner, the fee is $150 for one and $270 for two.
For instructions on how to register, and for more information, including where to stay, visit karval.org.