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Plover Appreciation Day

Ringed plover

You may have guessed by our company name, but here at Purple Plover, we love plovers! So, what better way to mark Plover Appreciation Day than a post about this lovely group of waders? With its roots in Australia in 2015, the event is now celebrated on September 16th each year by everyone concerned for the future of plovers, as well as their close relatives the lapwings. Many members of this family are in decline due to a combination of habitat loss, increased disturbance at breeding sites and the impacts of climate change.

What Are Plovers?

Plovers are a subgroup of waders all displaying similar breeding strategies and behavioural characteristics. Together with lapwings, they make up the Charadriidae family. All have short bills and a slightly dumpy appearance. Members of this family use sight to find food and they have a very characteristic way of moving across the terrain when feeding. They constantly move rapidly a few paces before stopping to check their surroundings and peck for food before moving off again. If you see a wader moving about with a very stop-start pattern, you can be sure it is a plover or lapwing.

plover appreciation day golden plover eggs
These golden plover eggs are beautifully camouflaged

All are ground-nesters, laying their eggs in a shallow scrape on the ground. This makes them vulnerable to predators. The eggs are beautifully camouflaged, however, and nests are difficult to find. As added protection, plovers often use a distraction display to draw potential predators away from the nest. This includes pretending to be injured by dragging a ‘broken’ wing and leading the predator away. Worldwide, there are approximately 66 members of the plover and lapwing family.

Plovers in the UK

The UK has six species of plover and lapwing. Five breed here in varying numbers: ringed plover, little ringed plover, golden plover, lapwing and dotterel. One is a winter visitor, the grey plover.

Ringed Plover

The ringed plover is one of our resident plover species, although numbers are swelled in the winter by breeding birds from further north. This small, dumpy wader is a quintessential plover, with a short, black-tipped orange bill, plump appearance and classic stop-start feeding behaviour. Their backs are brown, their undersides white and they have a distinctive black and white face pattern and white wing bar. Juveniles are much browner.

Plover appreciation day ringed plover
The ringed plover is a small, often dumpy-looking wader

Like all plovers, they lay their eggs in a scrape on the ground, often on a beach, but also at gravel pits or sometimes on cleared industrial ground. The eggs are always neatly arranged with the pointed ends together in the centre. Even when a calling parent makes it obvious a nest is near, they are difficult to find. Breeding numbers of ringed plovers have declined considerably over the last 40 years. They are increasingly disturbed at their breeding sites by beach visitors, including dogs, and they are now on the UK Birds of Conservation Concern Red List. Their wintering numbers have also declined.

Little Ringed Plover

This species is similar in appearance to the ringed plover. Although it is slightly smaller and daintier, it can appear longer legged than its relative. It also has a plain black bill, no white wing bar and a yellow eye ring when seen closely. They are also less of a beach-nester, preferring gravel pits, reservoirs and shingle or sandy riverbanks. They are summer visitors, spending the winter in Africa and Southeast Asia.

Plover appreciation day little ringed plover
The little ringed plover has a distinctive yellow eye ring

Little ringed plovers are a recent colonist in the UK. They first bred in the UK in 1938 and have since spread through large parts of England and Wales and even into eastern Scotland. Over 1,000 pairs now breed here. Globally, they do not seem to be struggling as much as many of our other waders.

Golden Plover

European golden plovers are a considerably larger bird than the two ringed plovers. In its summer breeding plumage, it is a beautiful bird. Its gold and black spangled back combine with a white trimmed black belly. In the winter it loses the black and has a pale buff front. Like all plovers, it has a characteristic feeding action in short bursts. Their distinctive call is often described as mournful. Curiously, the much smaller dunlin often accompanies them on their breeding grounds, giving rise to the dunlin’s nickname, the ‘plover’s page’.

Golden Plover
A summer-plumaged golden plover

In the UK they breed on upland moors, with birds in Devon, Wales, Yorkshire, the Peak District and Scotland. In the winter they are joined by nearly 400,000 birds from further north. They form large flocks on estuaries, saltmarshes and fields, often in the company of lapwings.

Grey Plover

The only non-breeding species regularly seen in the UK is the grey plover. It is a true Arctic breeder, with birds found across northern Russia, Canada and Alaska in the short summer breeding season. Birds sometimes stop off in the UK in breeding plumage as they head north. These summer-plumaged birds are like a monochrome version of the golden plover, with silver and black spangles on the back and the same white trimmed black belly.

Plover appreciation day grey plover
Grey plovers are usually seen in the UK in their plainer winter plumage

Approximately 40,000 grey plovers winter around the UK. They are exclusively coastal and prefer muddy estuaries. Winter birds lose the black belly and appear more uniformly brown and grey in colour. Unlike golden plovers, in all plumages they have black ‘armpits’ under the wing which can be seen in flight. This is useful for distinguishing it from winter golden plovers.

Dotterel

Our most unusual and rarest plover is a summer visitor, the dotterel. Similar in size and shape to golden and grey plovers, it has a greyish-brown back, chestnut belly and white eye-stripe. Unusually among birds, the females are brighter than the males. In an example of reversed gender behaviour, after laying their eggs, the females leave the nest, leaving the male to incubate the eggs and rear the young. Females often mate more than once and have even been recorded migrating on to other locations to breed again.

Dotterl
Dotterels have an unusual breeding strategy with reversed gender roles

Restricted to Scotland’s mountain tops in the summer, only between 500 and 700 males breed each year in the UK. There are concerns that climate change will make it too warm even in the mountains for them to breed. Disturbance as more people use the uplands for recreation may also have a negative impact. They are on the UK’s Red List as a result of declines over the last few decades. In spring, they often arrive in small groups known as ‘trips’ at traditional stopping off points on their migration. These include fields on the north Norfolk coast and Pendle Hill in Lancashire.

Lapwing

Although not officially a plover, the lapwing is often included with its close relatives under the plover banner. It is another resident species, although up to half a million birds augment numbers in the winter. It is a distinctive bird, and it is difficult to mistake it for something else. Similar in size to the golden plover, it has a greenish-black iridescent back, white underparts, and black crest. Unlike the other UK family members, their wings are broad and round rather than pointed. In spring, males perform a swooping display flight whilst calling. This call has led to one of their nicknames, the ‘peewit’, and can sound weirdly electronic at times.

Plover appreciation day lapwing
Lapwings sport a distinctive black crest

Although lapwings are our most abundant breeding wader, they have suffered declines of 80% in England and Wales since 1960. Changes in farming have almost certainly been the biggest factor. Lapwings like damp grasslands and farmland for breeding. Increased land drainage for grazing means their nests are at greater risk of trampling by livestock. In addition, as farmland has become more uniform, lapwings have suffered as their preferred mosaic of mixed habitat has vanished.

Plover Appreciation

Like many of our waders, plovers, along with the closely related lapwing, face an increasing number of threats. As human populations move into new areas to exploit resources, plovers face more disturbance. This includes increased disturbance by recreational visitors to beaches and uplands. They are also losing habitat at an alarming rate as more land is drained or developed for farming or construction projects.

Winter flock of golden plovers
A winter flock of golden plovers

Climate change is also a huge threat. Whether it reduces the supply of their invertebrate food or affects the suitability of a range of breeding and wintering habitats, changing temperatures have the potential to impact plovers negatively. Now, more than ever, it’s time to appreciate our plovers and raise awareness of the challenges they face.