Dear Bird Folks,Please take a look at the bird in the center of the attached photo and tell me if you think itís an American Golden-Plover. Iíve been looking for one of these birds all fall, but Iím having trouble distinguishing it from all the plovers on the beach. Ė Cody, Plymouth, MA
No, itís not, Cody, butÖI hate to spoil your day, but the bird in the center of your photo is not an American Golden-Plover - itís a Black-bellied Plover. The Black-bellied Plovers are fine birds, but I understand itís disappointing when you find a lot of birds but not the one you are hoping to seeÖor maybe you did see it. Look at your photo again and focus on the bird in the bottom right-hand corner. See the one that is cut off and blurry? Believe it or not, thatís your sought-after American Golden-Plover. How about that? You saw the bird you were looking for; you just didnít know it. Donít feel bad about it; I see most of my best birds that way. (Donít tell anybody.) Each year Massachusetts is visited by five different plover species, with the meek Piping Plover getting most of the attention. We also get the oddly titled Semipalmated Plover, as well as Killdeer, which is also a plover in spite of its non-plover name. Black-bellied Plovers are with us year-round and are extremely common in late summer and fall. The less familiar bird in this group is the American Golden-Plover. While it may not be as common as the others, it does have a better name. The American Golden-Plover sounds more like itís a statue given out at an awards show. ďThe winner of this yearís American Golden-Plover goes toÖĒ Some birds are non-migratory. For example, the chickadees that used my nest box last spring are still around and will likely never wander more than a few blocks away. They donít seem to mind the winter. Other species are short-distance migrants. The bluebirds that didnít use my nest box last spring (and never do) may wander a little farther south, but thatís about as far as they go. Other birds really hate the cold, so they fly hundreds of miles south to get away from it. Then there is the American Golden-Plover, which really, really, really must hate the cold. Each fall they leave their breeding grounds on Arctic Tundra and donít stop until they are 10,000 miles away. (Itís still probably easier than making that awful drive to Florida.) The American Golden-Plover is one of the longest migrating birds in the world. In itself this migration is impressive, but how they migrate and the route they take should be beyond the capabilities of these five-ounce birds. When the birds leave their breeding grounds, which are often in northern Canada in some new place called ďNunavut,Ē they head east to the Maritime Provinces where they stop to refuel and rest a bit before continuing on. Itís this ďcontinuing onĒ part of the journey that is most impressive. After resting, the birds head out over the Atlantic and wonít stop again until they reach South America. Keep in mind these are sandpipers not ducks and they are flying out over the open ocean where there is no eating or drinking, and worst of all, the cell reception is terrible. Can you imagine? You might think that once the plovers finally land on the coast of South America, theyíd be done. After all, that should be enough traveling for one season, but no, they continue on. Over the jungles of Brazil they go, pushing on until they finally reach the pampas of Argentina. Here theyíll take a few months off until spring arrives, when theyíll pack up and head back to Nunavut. The entire round-trip journey of over 20,000 miles is certainly remarkable, but it should be pointed out that many of the birds are rookies and get no travel help from their parents. When the summer wound down the adults were in a hurry to get going, so they left for their southern vacation even before their kids were ready to go. The little birds, only a few months old, were forced to figure out things on their on. Whoa! Those are harsh parents. Even I wouldnít do that. Quite often these young birds are the ones we see here in the fall. Sometimes they are lost or are forced to come to shore by a storm and need time to recover. This is our best chance to see a golden-plover, except thereís one problem. In the winter, golden and Black-bellied Plovers look remarkably similar and itís not easy to tell one from the otherÖas you found out. To me itís a bit like the Downey and Hairy Woodpecker situation; itís about size. The golden-plover is slightly smaller, with a slimmer less chunky beak. Both species are dingy gray in the winter, but the golden-plover still has some faint tan or gold tones to its feathers. After that, good luck. Donít feel bad about struggling with the two plovers, Cody. I give you credit for noticing them in the first place. Many people think birds are only in their backyards and when they walk the beach they donít even pay attention to them. On the beach their focus is on finding shells, sea glass and swapping bits of gossip with whomever theyíre with. I like going to the beach in the winter. Right now I can still see a few sandpipers, plus a good assortment of loons, eiders, grebes and other sea ducks just off shore. And if Iím lucky, I might find something rare and if Iím really lucky, I might hear some good gossip. I never want to pass that up.
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