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Meet the Shorebirds: Black-Bellied Plover

They winter on our shoreline and summer in Alaska. Have you seen them?

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.

Tom Brody April 18, 2011 at 01:04 AM
What is amazing about the shore birds along the beach on Alameda Island, is that there seem to be at least 3 kinds of birds. There are tiny ones, medium-sized ones, and large ones. Sorry, that is as technical I get. Anyway, what is amazing, as that sometimes flocks of two different birds mingle with each other on the shore. But when the tiny bird flock takes to the air, only the tiny birds take wing, and the flock of other type of shore birds keeps put. I have a better understanding of BROWN PELICANS. I lived in South Carolina for a few years, and did extensive photography using a 300 mm telephoto lens with a motor drive. I know the personality of BROWN PELICANS pretty well, and I've done a little reading in technical journals, regarding their fishing habits and about their life cycle. What is a good thing about brown pelicans, is that they come close to people (two or three feet away from the photographer), thereby enabling great photos with a 21 mm wide angle lens.
Tom Brody April 18, 2011 at 01:06 AM
Muir Beach, which has a fine marsh, is also good for bird-watching. There is a black bird having a bright scarlet spot that lives there. I don't know what it is called, but it has a distinctive song that goes like this, "DOY-DOY-DEE, DOY-DOY-DEE."
Jennifer McGaffey April 18, 2011 at 07:37 AM
Redwing blackbird? Are the scarlet spots on their 'shoulders'? I love those guys and they show up in marshes all over the - country, at least, if not the world.
Sharol Nelson-Embry April 18, 2011 at 04:02 PM
Hi Tom, Shorebirds can be tricky to identify except by size as they look so similar in their winter plumage. Part of my goal is to help people see the amazing diversity of these different species. They're one of the wonders we can take for granted as they're so numerous. It only takes one or a series of disasters to threaten their populations, though, and the common to become rare. I'm also a big fan of brown pelicans! Maybe I'll feature them in a future article. Thanks for reading! Sharol
Sharol Nelson-Embry April 18, 2011 at 04:21 PM
We have a small population of redwing blackbirds at our pond in Crown Beach (near Crab Cove). They're fun to watch with the males displaying their red shoulder epaulets in spring in an effort to establish a breeding territory. Come on down & check them out!
Cecelia Leong April 18, 2011 at 04:53 PM
Docent Randy Lai pointed one out to me at Crab Cove. Is this the bird you mean? http://alameda.patch.com/articles/exploring-crab-cove-with-docent-randy-lai#photo-5557475

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