Scary Plover

Ringed and Semipalmated Plover ID

by Dani

Varanger´s  Semipalmated Plover made me remember an interesting looking, Semi-P like in some ways, juvenile Common Ringed Plover we had in Lanzarote last September. I think it´s good to show some pics of this at first controversial bird here, and comment a few things on a couple of features. Nothing new, but might be of interest.

Semipalmated Plovers are one of the most commonly recorded american shorebirds in the Azores, but, at the same time, one of the rarest ones in the rest of Europe. It must be overlooked, and has to be more common than what the records suggest. Main problem are the similarities with Common Ringed Plover, especially if the birds are distant.

Over here in the NW coast of Spain we´ve had 3 records of SP at the same area, so they are occuring here. I´ve been looking hard for many years, but still no luck. Will keep looking (and listening), and hopefully someday…

Back to the Lanzarote bird

Juvenile Common Ringed Plover. Lanzarote, September 2011. Photo by Juan Sagardía.
Note the obvious white area above the gape line, a typical feature of Semipalmated Plover, but that can occur occasionally on CRP. Bill shape, being quite slender and fairly long, is typical of CRP, unlike the short and stubby bill of most SPs.

The white feathering above the bill gape is a feature first pointed out by Killian Mullarney (whose comments on the bird were, as usual, very helpful) as much  more typical of SP. In my opinion too, it´s one of the most striking and easily seen features, together with bill shape,  that should “ring the alarms”, even with distant birds.

But, remember,  although very helpful for finding a candidate, it´s not a confirming feature, as some CRPs can show it. When confronted with a candidate, other features, as well as call, need to be checked in order to confirm its identification.

On this certain bird, this character was quite obvious on both sides of the face. Together with the fact that, at the same time, there were several other american waders present nearby, it meant that this lone bird deserved  closer scrutiny.

Juvenile Common Ringed Plover. Lanzarote, September 2011. Photo by Juan Sagardia.
Note again the obvious white area above the gape line, as well as a hint of a yellowish eyering. However, the lack of semipalmations between the inner and middle toe confirms it´s a CRP.

Semipalmations are said to be, on several field guides, “diagnostic” of Semipalmated Plover. But that´s not right at all! Unfortunately some of the information regarding semipalmations published on some bird guides is misleading, inaccurate or wrong.

CRP do show semipalmations between the outer and the middle toe. And, in some birds, they can be quite extensive. Such as on the Lanzarote bird. It´s true that they´re more extensive on SP, but, still, they can be quite noticeable on certain CRPs. Check the following pic..

Juvenile Common Ringed Plover. Lanzarote, September 2011. Photo by Juan Sagardía
On this close up of the toes, note the obvious semipalmation between the outer and the middle toe. This is in fact normal for CRP.

So the key is the semipalmation between the inner and middle toe, which is absent on CRP, and present in SP (though not as extensive as the one between the outer and middle) . Tough to see, but if it´s present, then you have it.

Although the diagnostic calls (apart from Spotted Redshank like, to my ears quite similar too to American Golden Plover. Once, one fly-by AGP I had here lead me, at first, to think on SP before seeing it…) are probably far easier to detect for clinching the ID as SP, and also for finding one… (see how Dan Brown and Rob Martin / Punkbirders found their last autumn irish bird: here ),if you have a candidate, try to check those toes.

As you can see, both on the second pic and on this one, the Lanzarote bird lacked any toe webbing between the inner and the middle toes, as is the case with CRP.

Juvenile Common Ringed Plover. Lanzarote, September 2011. Photo by Juan Sagardía.
Note quite extensive webbing between outer and middle toe, but lack of any semipalmations between inner and middle ones.

Furthermore, other visible features are also typical of CRP, such as bill shape, shape of breast band and supercilium (although these 2 are highly variable, and of little use in my opinion), etc..

There´s little  doubt there will be some Semipalmated Plovers this autumn waiting to be found by the persevering observer. Who will be the lucky one to find one this year? Checking carefully and familiarizing well with variation on the widespread CRP can prove very helpful too.

Juvenile Semipalmated Plover. Azores, October. Photo by Javier Portillo
Some juvenile Semipalmated Plovers, if seen well, are quite distinct, and shouldn´t pose many identification problems. The roundish head, narrow and even width breast band, white area above the bill gape, striking yellowish eyering, and typically short, stubby bill, identify instantly this bird as a Semipalmated Plover.

4 thoughts on “Scary Plover

  1. julianhough

    Interesting bird, and it looks as though there seems to be some funky stuff going on at the gape area. Note the bird also lacks any orange on the base of the bill..some SEPL show varying amounts of orange but if present, often extends onto the bottom of the upper mandible.

    Some of them are tough and do require scrutiny! Nice post.

  2. Marcus John

    Found a Semipalmated Plover on La Palma last Friday when leading for Naturetrek with Tom Brereton (see La Palma Birds for photos taken by resident birder Robert Burton). What drew our attention to this bird (which was accompanied by 4 Ringed Plovers) was the smaller size and slighter build. This also made it look more “leggy” than the Commons. Through the scope, the narrow yellow eye ring and the clear but limited reddish area at the base of the bill were very obvious. When it flew, the wing bar was intermediate between Common and Little Ringed Plover and clearly narrower across the primaries. When the bird called I immediately commented to Tom that it sounded very much like Spotted Redshank. Tom and I were able to find a site of features that enabled identification inc palmations but I the absence of a call, i would suggest that given good views, the eye ring and reddish bill base may be diagnostic?


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