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The American Golden-Plover

Dear Bird Folks,

Please take a look at the bird in the center of the attached photo and tell me if you think it’s an American Golden-Plover. I’ve been looking for one of these birds all fall, but I’m having trouble distinguishing it from all the plovers on the beach.

– Cody, Plymouth, MA


No, it’s not, Cody, but…

I hate to spoil your day, but the bird in the center of your photo is not an American Golden-Plover – it’s a Black-bellied Plover. The Black-bellied Plovers are fine birds, but I understand it’s disappointing when you find a lot of birds but not the one you are hoping to see…or 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, that’s your sought-after American Golden-Plover. How about that? You saw the bird you were looking for; you just didn’t know it. Don’t feel bad about it; I see most of my best birds that way. (Don’t 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 it’s a statue given out at an awards show. “The winner of this year’s American Golden-Plover goes to…”

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 don’t seem to mind the winter. Other species are short-distance migrants. The bluebirds that didn’t use my nest box last spring (and never do) may wander a little farther south, but that’s 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 don’t stop until they are 10,000 miles away. (It’s 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 “Nunavut,” they head east to the Maritime Provinces where they stop to refuel and rest a bit before continuing on. It’s this “continuing on” part of the journey that is most impressive. After resting, the birds head out over the Atlantic and won’t 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, they’d 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 they’ll take a few months off until spring arrives, when they’ll 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 wouldn’t 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 there’s one problem. In the winter, golden and Black-bellied Plovers look remarkably similar and it’s not easy to tell one from the other…as you found out. To me it’s a bit like the Downey and Hairy Woodpecker situation; it’s 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.

Don’t 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 don’t even pay attention to them. On the beach their focus is on finding shells, sea glass and swapping bits of gossip with whomever they’re 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 I’m lucky, I might find something rare and if I’m really lucky, I might hear some good gossip. I never want to pass that up.