Saturday, July 21, 2012

Shorebird Identification: The Small "dark-backed" Plovers

The small "dark-backed" plovers are comprised of the Semipalmated and Wilson's.  At first glance these two species can be similar but in reality these two species should be very easy to identify in most situations.  Even at a distance, the bill shape and size should quickly rule out the other species.  Semipalmated is the most widespread of the small plovers and can be seen practically everywhere in the US at one time or another.

Semipalmated Plover-Nonbreeding
Semipalmated Plovers at Little Estero Lagoon.  You can find a birding guide to this location
This is a flock of Semipalmated Plovers each in a varying transitional plumage between basic (non-breeding) and alternate (breeding) plumage.  On average these plovers are the darkest-backed plover.  Some key points to notice are the small orange-based bill, yellow-orange legs and overall face pattern.  The orange base to the bill is present at all ages and seasons but is most prominent on breeding males and least prominent on juveniles.  The Wilson's always has a full black bill that is much larger than the bill of Semipalmated.  The yellow-orange color to the legs is also always present.  The black face mask of the breeding Semipalmateds distinguish the mask-less face pattern of Wilson's Plover.  On the whole, Wilson's are chunkier and a bit larger than Semipalmated.

Wilson's Plover-Nonbreeding
Wilson's Plover-Nonbreeding
By noticing the bill shape and size this plover should be identifiable from quite a distance.  It has, by far, the thickest and longest bill of the small plovers.  During nonbreeding these plovers are drab without a distinct breast band or any dark markings on the head.  Overall this is an easy species to identify, even just based on shape, you should be able to quickly identify this species.

Wilson's Plover in breeding plumage. 
As you can see from this picture, the Wilson's Plover becomes much more striking when in breeding plumage.  Due to the narrow breast band this individual is a female in breeding plumage.  A male would show a much wider breast band of the same color.

For suggestions on Shorebird Field Guides go to one of our previous posts at

The next shorebird identification article will be one of the most challenging, the dowitchers!


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