A couple of weeks ago I had a pleasant but not too noteworthy couple of days in Caithness. The weather was stunning and there thousands of birds around. Goldcrests were in every bit of vegetation that could support them, and some just on the rocks! The odd Yellow-browed and Sibe Chiff brightened up the birding. I checked the fields at the Quoys of Reiss. They are great for plovers, and in the past I’ve had Upland Sandpiper and American Golden Plover here. The first day revealed a small flock of Golden Plovers but nothing more. On the second day the flock had tripled in size and one bird instantly smacked me in the face as being different. A ‘lesser’ Golden Plover and no doubt an AGP. The light wasn’t brilliant and I rattled off a few DSLR shots from inside the car whilst parked up on the verge.
I stopped to check the images and during my chimping the whole flock rose and headed down slope and over the brow of a shallow hill, out of sight. This was the last I saw of the bird. All that remained were the few images I had. I hadn’t even seen the underwing colour.
Whilst the bird had struck me as being different something didn’t feel right for it being a ‘lesser’ and it prompted me to look into it further. Both Paul French and Nils van Duivendijk provided some great feedback (thanks chaps) which has provided both answers and questions.
Whilst I frequently see cold grey Golden Plovers, they always look just that, standard EGPs in a cold tone. At first glance this bird has a slightly smaller and more rangy in appearance than an EGP, longer legs, and a slightly more attenuated rear end. The crown is very dark and the face very pale, all pro ‘lesser ‘ GP features.
A closer look though reveals the tertials to be too finely notched for either American or Pacific, and the bill looks pretty standard for an EGP. The mantle feathering is dark and coarsely notched, more AGP than EGP.
So what is it? It’s not a ‘lesser’ Golden Plover that’s for sure, and the most likely explanation is that it’s an aberrant European Golden Plover, however with the number of AGPs that arrive in the UK each year the possibility of a hybrid should not be excluded.
Hybrid Pacific x American have been frequently recorded in the USA especially Alaska where breeding ranges overlap, but to date there are no instances of European x American Golden Plover (Handbook on Avian Hybrids of the World 2006).
This article in Birdwatch deals with some pitfalls of EGPs and ‘lesser’ GPs and also mentions a possible hybrid in Somerset in 1987-88.
Hybrid Golden Plovers should definitely be on the radar when faced with an unusual Golden Plover in future, but hopefully for your sake you’ll be faced with a stonking clear-cut PGP!