Plovers are a group of about 68 species across nine genera, all in the family Charadiidae. They are found on every continent but Antarctica, and they get pretty close there. The systematics are far from fully sorted out, and the life histories of most of those 68 species are pretty much unknown. Ornithologists cannot even agree on how to pronounce “plover.”1 WC has managed to photograph only a tiny fraction of the diverse plovers, but even that pitiful selection has too many species for a single blog post. So WC will offer glimpses and notes of a few of the 32 members of the genus Charadrius, chosen for geographic variety and photo quality. And the Magpie Principle.
The smallest of the North American plovers, and near-threatened by habitat loss and disruption, WC was lucky enough to see this and six(!) other plover species on the recent trip to Texas.2 This bird seemed completely unconcerned about the dozen or so surrounding birders. The species breeds on the sandy ocean shores and inland saline lakes of North America. All plover chicks are “precocial,” meaning that they hatch able to walk and forage on their own. Snowy Plovers take precociality to an extreme: they employ an unusual facultative polygamous breeding system in many which females in some populations, and less frequently males, desert their first broods soon after hatching to renest with new mates, sometimes hundreds of kilometers from their first nests.
Piping Plover, Bolivia Peninsula, Texas
Another near-threatened plover species, the Piping Plover breeds on the north Atlantic coast and in five states and three Canadian provinces on the northcentral Great Plains. The world population is down to about 3,000 breeding pairs. The worst risks seem to come on in their Gulf Coast winter range, and management and preservation efforts have more recently focused there. Everything from feral housecats to speeding vehicles on beaches are a threat. Unlike their Snowy Plover relatives, Piping Plovers hang around their kids and are known to brood their hatchlings for as long as 17 days.
If readers have encountered a Charadrius plover it was probably a Semipalmated, the most common plover in North America. On some gravel river bars in Interior Alaska, it seems as if it is impossible to walk ten feet without tripping over a Semipalmated Plover. Sadly, the species sometimes confuses roads with gravel bars.
Approximately 3-day old Semipalmated Plover, Fairbanks, Alaska
Despite that and numerous other hazards, especially in migration, the population of this species is about 120,000 breeding pairs, very successful for Charadrius.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the hemisphere, the Two-banded Plover is a kind of inverse image of the Semipalmated. This bird migrates north for the Austral winter (except for the Falkland Islands population, which is sedentary). There is much less human disturbance in southernmost South American and the Falklands; the populations of this species are healthy and stable.
Like North America and South America, Asia has its populations of Charadrius plover. One of them is the Kentish Plover, which ranges from Japan and the Philippines in the east to West Africa, and from sub-Saharan Africa to the Asian Steppes. Kentish Plovers may have the most cosmopolitan breeding style: they are monogamous, polyandrous and polygynous, and the circumstances that trigger the different breeding approaches are not well understood.
This is a species of Asian deserts and semi-deserts, ranging from the Middle East to the Tibetan steppe. It winters along the coasts of Asia, where there is concern about ongoing habitat loss. So far, based on limited amount of data, populations haven’t been impacted. The Greater Sandgrouse is the polar opposite in parenting skills from the Snowy Plover, brooding the hatchlings for as long as 30 days.
That’s a quick look at half a dozen of the smaller plovers, In the next few days, WC will endeavor to provide a similar glimpse at the larger plovers.
1 Right thinking people, of course, pronounce the name “plover” to rhyme with “lover,” not “plover” to rhyme with “rover.” This is not really debatable.
2 Snowy, Piping, Wilson’s, Semipalmated, Black-bellied, American Golden and Killdeer, if you were curious.