Bird of the Month: Black-bellied Plover
By Andy McCormick
Scientific Name: Pluvialis squatarola
Length 11.5 in
Wingspan 29 in
Weight 8 oz (240 g)
AOU Band code BBPL
The Black-bellied Plover is our largest plover. It is distinctive in its breeding plumage with black bill and legs, back and white barred upperparts and black face, throat and breast to the belly. In fall it molts to its basic plumage of gray above and below with a lightly streaked breast (photo). Because of this appearance it has been called the Grey Plover in the Old World. In flight black patches are visible in the axillars. These patches are present only in the Black-bellied Plover and make a good field mark in winter.
The genus name Pluvialis is from the Latin for rain or being associated with rain (Holloway). There does not seem to be any good reason for the birds to have been given this name. I would like to think that the birds bred in such large numbers that when they landed during migration it seemed to be raining plovers. Equally obscure is the species name squatarola, meaning bull-headed (Online Dictionary). The bird was called the Bull-headed Plover in the southeastern United States in the 19th Century (Audubon). It is still sometimes described this way (Paulson). The common name is descriptive.
Black-bellied Plovers breed in western Alaska and extreme northern Canada and around the world in the high arctic zone. They winter along the coastlines of the United States southward through Bermuda, the West Indies, and Mexico, to Central and South America north of the equator and in similar areas on several other continents. The nest is a shallow scrape in the gravel usually in dry tundra but sometimes in river bottom areas. Usually four buff to grey-green colored eggs with dark splotches are distributed in the nest. Incubation lasts four weeks. Once hatched the young leave the nest almost immediately to begin foraging and find all their own food (Kaufman). They begin flying after 4-6 more weeks. It is the juvenile birds that we will see heading south in Washington during September. They congregate in large flocks on mudflats along the coast but can also be found in inland fields. The adults generally migrate in late July and August.
Black-bellieds feed in typical plover fashion. They run a few feet then probe slightly to get at mollusks, marine worms, and insects, and then run a few more feet to nab something else. They can be seen in mixed flocks with Dunlin and dowitchers and have been described as sentinels for other birds because they are so alert to predators (Bent). Their plaintive PLEEooee whistling call is distinctive (Paulson, Sibley).
Black-bellied Plovers are abundant and their numbers are stable. Nineteenth Century hunting did not affect them as it did the American Golden-Plover.