Bird of the Month: American Golden Plover and Pacific Golden Plover
By Andy McCormick
Scientific Names: Pluvialis dominica and Pluvialis fulva
Length 10.5 in 10.25 in
Wingspan 26 in 24 in
Weight 5 oz 4.6 oz
AOU Band code AMGP PAGP
These two lovely, golden-backed plovers are migratory visitors to Washington and are seen most often in the fall. They were once considered one species and are very similar in appearance and difficult to identify in the field. However, their beauty makes the task worthwhile.
The males in breeding plumage are almost totally black on the breast. The American Golden Plover is black to the tail. The Pacific Golden Plover is black to the belly with white under the tail. Both males have a dramatic while neck stripe. On the American the neck stripe stops around the breast where it widens toward the center of the breast. On the Pacific the neck stripe extends to the flanks (Alderfer). The female and juveniles of the Pacific tend to be more golden or yellowish overall and they have a sharply defined black patch directly behind the ear. They also have more golden-colored spots on their back. The female and juvenile American tend to be a bit whiter with a less well-defined mark behind the ear, the golden spots are more limited to the upper back.
Both of these plovers are in the genus Pluvialis, Latin for rain or being associated with rain. We can only speculate about why this name was chosen. The first American specimen was collected in the Dominican Republic giving this species its name of dominica. The Pacific looks golden and sometimes reddish brown relating to the species name fulva, Latin for brown (Holloway).
Both species are usually seen in the lower 48 during migration. The Pacific migrates along the Pacific Coast Flyway, hence their name. The American migrates through the Central Flyway. Some American plovers stray to the coast making identification more of a challenge.
The two species were once considered subspecies of the Lesser Golden Plover, but they were divided in 1993 when it was confirmed that birds breeding in the same area of Alaska did not interbreed, have different breeding calls, and like different habitat during breeding (Kaufman). All of which led scientists to consider them separate species. However, other aspects of their breeding are similar. They make a shallow nest in the tundra, the Pacific at lower altitudes on wetter tundra, and the American on drier tundra. Usually four eggs are deposited and are incubated for about four weeks. The young leave the nest soon after hatching and forage for food. First flight occurs in about 21 days (Kaufman).
Both species are long-distance migrants. The American winters in the pampas of eastern Argentina, an area that is being converted to agriculture at a very fast rate. The American likes rice fields where the birds can become exposed to pesticides to their detriment. The Pacific is more adaptive and winters in varied habitats including coastal wetlands, mudflats, salt marshes, mangroves, beaches, residential lawns and golf courses. Both species breeding areas are potentially threatened by global warming which will melt areas of the tundra making it unsuitable as a breeding area (Johnson and Connors). However, a management plan is in place for the American and the Pacific appears to be holding its own for now.