Piping Plovers Are Hard To Spot, Even Harder To Accurately Identify


Among the many misidentified wildlife species that I get queried about, none tops that of the piping plover.Many of the mistaken IDs are understandable, as there are a number of shorebirds that somewhat resemble the piping plover in size, shape and general color patterns. Among these are the sanderlings, semipalmated plovers and even the killdeer. One of the latter, with chicks, was reported as a piping plover just this past weekend.

What I’ve found different about the mistaken plovers versus other identity errors—for example, a red fox sighting called in as a coyote, or an immature bald eagle photographed and labeled a golden eagle, and the many river otter sightings I’ve followed up on that were muskrats—is the insistence that the sanderling/killdeer/semipalmated plover is, in fact, a piping plover.

Mistaken identifications of the piping plover are one thing when it involves the general public; it is more problematic when professionals who are authorized to drive through the protected plover areas are making the mistake. This group includes lifeguards, marine patrol officers and police. In fairness, I’ve found that all of these professionals have been keen to hone their plover ID skills.

I never realized how many trips are made on a daily basis through the protected, “closed to motor vehicles” areas until I started working part-time as a lifeguard this summer. Although many of the town and village employees patrolling the beaches on quads can easily distinguish a piping plover from a sanderling if they see them, the problem is spotting them.

This may seem a bit of hyperbole to some readers. In my experience, everyone thinks they can pick out a 7-inch-tall bird with a black collar, black-tipped orange bill and yellow-orange legs on the bare, sandy beach. When you see a color photo of a piping plover, it hardly seems a candidate for “best camouflaged.”

I had some fun with a group of lifeguards who insisted that the string fence protecting a piping plover nest near their main stand was unoccupied. The keen-eyed guards had been watching the area for two full weeks, and not a single plover was sighted during that time. I walked over to the edge of the fence with four of them, and immediately saw the male standing several feet to the right of a large piece of driftwood. Yet I had to give an exact description of where it stood before three of the guards saw it—and the fourth still did not spot it until it moved!

Two weeks ago, I stopped a marine patrol officer on a quad and pointed out that he was traveling a bit fast in the restricted plover area where hatchlings were afoot. “Yeah, I know what they look like, and I haven’t seen any here,” he insisted. Twenty yards behind him was one of the hatchlings that, fortunately, the quad also missed.

The inability to see the plovers is not an issue with the adults and young fledglings that can fly; they can easily avoid even a fast-moving motor vehicle. But hatchlings that are less than one month old are very vulnerable to being overtaken and run over. Hence the snow fencing and restrictions on motor vehicles.

And hatchlings are much more difficult than the adults to spot. When I first started training as a plover monitor with Latisha Coy in the early spring, I had difficulty spotting the adults. They seemed to suddenly pop up right in front of me. Several months later, having honed that search image, I found that I had to retool my search image to pick out the tiny chicks, best described as a tiny cotton ball balanced on a pair of toothpicks.

As an ocean lifeguard, plover steward, beach runner, surfer, open water swimmer, and beach bum, I’ve enjoyed sharing the beach with the plover and terns. Have fun with the plover quiz!


1) C.

A—sanderling; B—semipalmated plover; D—killdeer.

2) Common tern (least tern is similar but smaller with yellow bill and legs and a white patch on the forehead).

3) Very unlikely.

4) String fencing is erected around the nest area.

5) They will run for cover, and “freeze” in a pile of shells or a small depression on the beach, relying on camouflage.

6) 25-35 days.

7) Small invertebrates it gleans from the beach wrack, intertidal mud and sand, and sandhoppers (aka beach fleas) on the beach itself.

8) After hatching, snow fencing and signage is installed to keep motor vehicles and dogs out of the area during its 25- to 35-day flightless phase.

9) Two (one adult male and one newly hatched chick).

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