Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Shorebird Identification: The Small "light-backed" Plovers

The group of small "light-backed" plovers is comprised of Piping and Snowy Plover.  Both show up fairly regularly inland since each has a portion of their breeding grounds in the central US.  Both species winter along the Gulf Coast but the Snowy has a more westerly range which is comprised of a breeding range on the Pacific coast as well as some breeding areas in the interior west.  The Piping has the more easterly range; they breed  along the coasts in the northeast as well as in the north-central interior.

In breeding plumage these species are easy to pick out and identify.  The males and females in this plumage are very similar with the female being a drab version of the male.  


Piping Plover-Breeding

This is a breeding plumaged Piping Plover.  It is one of the two "light-backed" species of small plovers; the other is the Snowy.  The orange base of the bill and the orange legs are good distinguishing field marks if you are close enough to make out their color.  If you are further away, the black ring around the neck is more extensive than in Snowy and the pale face with only one small dark patch on the forehead is diagnostic.

Snowy Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus)
To see on the photographer's photostream on flickr follow:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/steveberardi/3519159504/
This is a breeding plumaged Snowy Plover, as you can see it is quite different than the Piping in breeding plumage.  It has a similar colored pale back but the bare parts (the bill and legs) are dark.  The bill is black and the legs usually appear black/gray but never the orange of the Piping Plover.  The black patch on the side of the neck is also less extensive and does not wrap around the neck.  The black auricular patch is also a very noticeable field mark that differentiates these two species.

Now for the plovers in non-breeding plumage.

Piping Plover

This is a Piping Plover in non-breeding plumage.  As you can see, in non-breeding plumage this species loses it's distinctive facial markings and the bill becomes a solid dark color.  The legs however, stay orange/yellow and this species can still be identified using that field mark if it is visible.  Bill shape is also diagnostic between these two species.  The Piping has a short, stubby bill while the Snowy has a longer, slender bill.  The face pattern is also different.  The most noticeable feature is the more distinct white eyebrow of the Piping Plover.

Snowy Plover
To see on the photographer's photostream on flickr follow:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/46789814@N05/4295601309/  
This is a non-breeding Snowy Plover.  As mentioned in the above paragraph, the legs are still a distinguishing factor.  The Snowy has the black/gray legs throughout the year so if you are close enough to see this the identification should be simple.  As you can also see in this photo, the eyebrow is more faded and much less distinct than the Piping at this time of year.  And as a cincher you can always check the bill shape as mentioned above.

There are more shorebird ID articles to come!
Next up, the other two small plovers.
-Eric

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