Mystery Bird: Semipalmated plover, Charadrius semipalmatus

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[Mystery bird] Semipalmated plover, Charadrius semipalmatus, photographed at Smith Point, Texas. [I will identify this bird for you tomorrow]
Image: Joseph Kennedy, 7 September 2008 [larger view].
Nikon D200, Kowa 883 telescope TSN-PZ camera eyepiece 1/1250s f/8.0 at 1000.0mm iso400.

Read a beautifully written and detailed analysis supporting the ID of this species below ..


Rick Wright, Managing Director of WINGS Birding Tours Worldwide, writes:
We birders love the technical terms of our trade, delighting sometimes overmuch in tarsi, tomia, and terts. But it can be equally productive, and far more instructive, to step back once in a while and avail ourselves of a less specialized vocabulary. What’s the first word that springs to your mind when you see the bird in the quiz photo?
For me, it’s “cute.” This is a pudgy little bird with a round head and a snub “nose,” a combination of shapes and aspects that brings out the nurturer in adult humans. “Aww,” we say, “look at that sweet little plover!” No sandpiper is ever this cuddly-looking.
The bold plumage markings of this bird place it within the genus Charadrius, the so-called ringed plovers. Once we’ve got that far, it’s fairly easy to narrow the possibilities using first coarse impressions. The bird’s short rear end rules out Killdeer immediately. And it’s dark-backed, to be sure, a feature often harped on to distinguish the “wet-mud” species from their “dry-sand” cousins; but more useful at any distance is the face: is this bird dark-faced or pale-faced?
Note that we’re not concerned (yet) with the precise details of the face pattern, only with the overall impression it makes. To my eye, this bird is nearly helmeted. Snowy, Piping, and Wilson’s Plover all show much paler faces, the pattern obviously black-on-white rather than this bird’s white-on-black. That leaves us with only one real possibility, the abundant (and enormously cute) Semipalmated Plover.
There’s a complication, of course, and that is the fact that shorebirds are so prone to occur outside of their “normal” range. It’s perfectly sensible to rely on probability and range in identifying this Texas bird as a Semipalmated Plover — but for the sake of thoroughness, just what keeps this bird from being that ornithologically blessed state’s first Common Ringed Plover? I don’t know that species well enough to blah on about its structure and shape, but I do know the details of face pattern that let us identify this one definitively as Semipalmated. Note first that the quiz bird shows very little white behind the eye; one would expect a conspicuous slash on a Common Ringed Plover. The shape of the white forehead patch is also inconsistent with Common Ringed: on that species, the angle of the white in front of the eye tends to be obtuse, while on Semipalmated (as here) the white patch ends in an acute point. Most critically, look at the dark line connecting the “cheek” to the base of the bill. It narrows distally, such that the dark feathering meets the bill on only the upper mandible; on Common Ringed, the entire base of the bill touches black feathers.
Many of you will have aged and sexed this bird, too. The badly worn, almost shredded wing coverts make it an adult (juveniles are fresh and tidy as can be this time of year), and the lack of glossy black on the head suggests that it is a female.
Review all mystery birds to date.

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About GrrlScientist

grrlscientist is the pseudonym of an evolutionary biologist and ornithologist who writes about evolution, ethology, and ecology, especially in birds. After earning a degree in microbiology (thesis focus: virology) and working at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, she earned her PhD in zoology from the University of Washington in Seattle, where she studied the molecular correlates of testosterone and behaviour in white-crowned sparrows. She then worked a Chapman Postdoctoral Fellow at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where she studied the speciation and distribution of lories and other parrots throughout the South Pacific Islands. A discarded scientist, she returned to her roots: writing. Formerly hosted by The Guardian (UK), she now writes about science for Forbes and for the non-profit think tank, the Evolution Institute and she writes podcasts for BirdNote Radio. An avid lifelong birder and aviculturist, she lives with a flock of songbirds and parrots somewhere in Germany.
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0 Responses to Mystery Bird: Semipalmated plover, Charadrius semipalmatus

  1. forgedsteel says:

    Its a ringed plover. Quite common in Europe.

  2. Hilary says:

    Semipalmated Plover, looking a little scruffy….

  3. Smilodon says:

    It’s very clearly a Grumpy Plover.
    Ringed Plovers have never been found in Texas.

  4. forgedsteel says:

    Hmmm.. I thought semi-palmated plovers had a yellow beak splash and the ringed had a red beak splash… maybe I got that backwards.

  5. bobk says:

    I don’t have the time to confidently ID this fellow right now but a question immediately comes to mind: what is a bird with such a short bill doing in such deep water? Oh, now I see the little droplets of water on its back. It must be a diver.

  6. bobk says:

    Semipalmated Plover.
    I didn’t know plovers were sexually dimorphic (see the big Sibley pp161). But I think this is more likely another troubling adolescent. There are enough contradictions here to inspire me to go out and get The Shorebird Guide recommended by Rick Wright.

  7. Tige Gibson says:

    I can drive for a hundred miles in any direction and I won’t see anything but crows and seagulls, but mostly crows. Lots and lots of crows. Crows are protected under the law. Due to construction, bird lovers have gotten very upset about disturbing of the crows nesting habitat. There is no point in having legislation that protects any species of birds except crows and seagulls, because crows and seagulls are the only species of bird that exist. If any other species of bird existed, you could at least bring me a corpse, a skeleton even. There is more evidence of Big Foot.

  8. Lindsay says:

    This photo just reminds me of every kildeer I’ve ever seen that I, for a moment, allowed myself to be optimistic and think was a semipalmated plover. Stupid kildeer.

  9. Tige Gibson — i can see, using your scenario, all the crows flying around saying “I can fly for a hundred miles in any direction and I won’t see anything but people and cows, but mostly people. Lots and lots of people. People are protected under the law. Due to construction, people lovers have gotten very upset about disturbing of people’s homes and children. There is no point in having legislation that protects any species of animals except people and cows, because people and cows are the only species of animal that exist. If any other species of animal existed, you could at least bring me a corpse, a skeleton even. There is more evidence of Big Bird.

  10. Cynthia Boyce says:

    Is it a Piping Plover?