By Sharol Nelson-Embry, Naturalist, East Bay Regional Park District
The black-bellied plover is one to watch along Alameda shores. As spring days lengthen they transform from their dull winter browns and grays into show-stopping patterns. This happens just as they’re fattening up for their long migration, starting in April and May, to the far north where mating and nesting will occupy their time.
During high tide in the Elsie Roemer Bird Sanctuary at Crown Beach a month or so ago, I noticed large groups of shorebirds huddled on the exposed marshlands waiting for the tide to recede.
Among them were small groups of black-bellied plovers. The plovers have been wintering along our shore, feasting with the other shorebirds on abundant worms, clams and crustaceans. With their keen eyesight, they are often seen individually hunting for food with a stop-run-stop habit. They act as the safety patrol for their fellow shorebirds, on the lookout for anything that could threaten them – people, dogs, cats, foxes. They alert the other birds to any danger.
In their winter colors of mottled brown, they stood out only when they raised their wings and showed their black “wing-pits,” like arm pits. As they molt, or shed and grow new feathers, the black is now spreading to highlight their faces, necks and bellies and their mottled brown back is being replaced with snappy black and white. They no longer blend in so well!
Black-bellied plovers are one of the strongest shorebird fliers. They can reach speeds of 50 miles per hour and able to fly against strong winds. This skill is necessary as they fly from our shores to the far northern tundra of Alaska and Canada.
In a single flight they can travel from 900 to 4,000 miles, making them excellent migrators. They’ll begin leaving our area this month and into May, heading for the Land of the Midnight Sun.
It makes sense when 24 hours of daylight means a 24 hour smorgasbord of insects to feed your young. They build nests on the ground in the dry tundra and lay about four eggs which they incubate for nearly four weeks.
The young hatch and are able to walk and feed themselves in the first day, though they stay close to the parents for protection and warmth. When they’re flight ready and fattened up, they will return to our shores at the end of summer already dressed in their winter drab.