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Black-bellied Plover

With a long migration range, these winter birds travel to the Arctic region to breed.

The Black-bellied Plover is descriptively named if you are looking at a breeding adult, but the European name of Grey Plover is also fitting if you are looking at an immature or winter-plumaged bird. By whatever name one uses, the Black-bellied Plover is a very widespread species and a long-distance migrant.

Able to fly up to 50 miles per hour, Black-bellied Plovers also tend to hurry on land, running rather than walking. They are usually seen alone or in small flocks, and males are more likely to return to the same breeding ground than females in subsequent years.


Description of the Black-bellied Plover


The Black-bellied Plover is a chunky shorebird with a medium size, black bill.  Length: 11 in.  Wingspan: 29 in.

– Black cheeks, throat, and belly.
-White forehead, crown, and nape.
-Black and white patterned upperparts

Black-bellied Plover


Similar to male but black is heavily mottled with white.

Seasonal change in appearance

Winter adults are grayish above and white with darker streaking below.  Black “arm pits” visible in flight are diagnostic.


Similar to winter adults.


Mud flats, beaches, and tundra.


Insects, crustaceans, and mollusks.

Black-bellied Plover

Photograph © Greg Lavaty


Forages by walking and running.


Breeds in northern Canada and Alaska and winters along the coasts of North America. Populations appear stable.

More information:

Bent Life History

Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the Black-bellied Plover.

Fun Facts

Black-bellied Plovers are powerful flyers, capable of going 50 mph or flying against strong winds.

Estimates of the distance Black-bellied Plovers can travel in one flight range from 900 to 4,000 miles, making them very capable migrants.


A three-note whistle.


Similar Species

American Golden Plover
The golden-plovers have smaller bills and in the breeding season have bright golden upperparts. In flight, Black-bellied Plovers have black ‘wingpits.”



The nest is a pebble-lined scrape.

Number: 4.
Color: Buff or greenish with darker markings.

Incubation and fledging:
– Young hatch at 26-27 days.
– Young fledge (leave the nest) soon after hatching days but remain with the adults for some time.


Bent Life History of the Black-bellied Plover


I use the above name rather than the latest check list name, cynos’urae because I can not see any valid reason for recognizing a North American race of this cosmopolitan species. A slight average difference in size is of little significance in a species which shows such a wide range of individual variation. Recent investigation has, I believe, convinced even Mr. Bangs that this race, which he described, has no standing. The bird which breeds in northeastern Siberia has been separated under the name ltyparnelaena; this may be a good race, though material to establish it is rather scanty in this country. Probably it is the Siberian race which breeds on the Bering Sea coast of Alaska. For life-history purposes the species, as a whole, will be considered.The black-bellied plover is an aristocrat among shore birds, the largest and strongest of the plovers, a leader of its tribe. It is a distinguished-looking bird in its handsome spring livery of black and white; and its attitude, as it stands like a sentinel on the crest of a sand dune or on some distant mud flat, is always dignified and imposing. Its wild, plaintive, and musical whistle arouses the enthusiasm of the sportsman and serves both as a warning and as an invitation to the lesser fowl that look to it for leadership.Its breeding range is circumpolar, but decidedly spotty; there are very few places where it breeds at all commonly. On migrations it is widely distributed over nearly all of the Northern Hemisphere. It was never as abundant in this country as the golden plover and apparently never traveled in such immense flocks; hence it was never slaughtered in such enormous numbers. Moreover, it is much wilder, more wary, and better able to take care of itself; consequently it has held its own much better and has proven more of a success in the struggle for existence.

Nevertheless, it has been considerably reduced in numbers during the past 75 years. I am inclined to think that the reduction in numbers is more apparent than real and that the birds have learned to avoid certain localities, where they were once so abundant and where they have been so persistently pursued by gunners. George H. Mackay (1892) has shown a decided decrease on Nantucket, which he attributes to such a cause. From my own 30 years’ experience on Cape Cod I know that this has taken place there; I have noticed a gradual decrease in the numbers of black-bellied plover that come to Chatham and Monomoy during the fall flight, until now I often see no more than half a dozen in a day, where formerly we used to see them in hundreds. On the spring flight, however, they are often very abundant there, and apparently have increased since spring shooting was stopped; formerly they were much more abundant in the fall than in the spring, but the reverse is now the case. This is a striking example of the bird’s sagacity. Francis N. Baich told me that he saw at least 4,000 black-bellied plover on Monomoy on one day during the height of the spring flight in 1927. This compares favorably with Nuttairs much quoted statement that flocks of more than 1,000 gathered near Boston about 100 years ago. Some of the figures given below will show that there are still plenty of blackbellied plover left in places where they are not too much molested. Spring: From the northern part of its winter range in the southern States the black-bellied plover starts on its northward migration in April and there is a general northward movement, entirely across the continent, all through May; the last of the migrants do not leave the northern States until the first week in June. Arthur T. Wayne (1910) says that, in South Carolina, “when the wind is from the south and the tide is low in the afternoon, the~e birds migrate in small flocks in a northwesterly direction,” probably taking an overland route to their breeding grounds. But there is also a heavy northward migration along the Atlantic coast, at least as far as New Jersey, whence I believe the main flight swings inland, though there is a well-marked spring migration in Massachusetts, mainly during the last half of May, which seems to have increased in recent years. During the latter part of May, 1927, I was privileged to see, through the kindness of Dr. Harry C. Oberholser, the greatest flight of black-bellied plover, dowitchers, and turnstones that I have ever seen. On the coast of New Jersey, in the vicinity of Tuckerton Bay and Little Egg Harbor, we made actual counts, or careful estimates, of all birds seen and the totals were far ahead of any he had recorded there in recent years. Seven day’s records show a total of over 20,000 black-bellied plover; on our two best days, May 27 and 28, we recorded 6,200 and 5,600; and on our poorest day, May 25, we counted only 238, showing that they came in waves. The blackbellied plover were often associated in the large flocks with ruddy turnstones; we saw one immense flock which we estimated to contain 3,500 birds of these two species. This great flock was a thrilling sight, as it swept in over the marsh like a great cloud and alighted; twice, while we were watching, it arose like a swarm of insects, circled about, separated into two divisions, joined again, and alighted. We did not see it depart. This seems to be the best place on the New Jersey coast to observe shore birds in Large numbers, where they alight to rest and feed on the large, flat, marshy islands. These are mud islands raised but a few feet above high water and some of them are partially flooded during spring tides; they are mainly covered with salt-marsh grasses, intersected by tidal creeks and dotted with small pond holes or bare muddy splashes. The plover alighted on the bare spaces or in the short grass, where the large flocks seen in the distance seemed to whiten the ground. These large flocks, with sentinels always alert, were utterably unapproachable; and even the small flocks and single birds were as shy as ever. At low tide they resorted to the extensive mud fiats to feed, though they doubtless fed on the meadows also.

On Cape Cod they frequent the same localities as in the fall; my earliest date is April 19 and my latest date for adult birds is June 29. The spring flights here and in New Jersey are made up mainly of adult birds, mostly in full plumage, but many are mottled and there are always some “pale bellies,” or young birds.

The black-bellied plover is an abundant spring migrant up the Mississippi Valley and through central Canada. We saw it in Saskatchewan during the last week in May and first week in June. C. G. Harold tells me that it is abundant around the prairie lakes and sloughs in Manitoba. Prof. William IRowan (1926) calls it abundant in Manitoba; his notes mention a flock estlinated at about 3,000 seen on May 23, 1925, at Beaverhill Lake. He says:

At our lake It is one of the later arrivals in the spring, seldom appearing before the middle of May. It stays generally in some numbers till the end of the month and may linger till the second week of June. Flocks are usually small, anything up to 30, except when the birds are ready to start on the next lap north, when they may aggregate many hundreds if not thousands. On May 23, 1925, we estimated the ground covered by a single flock of grey plovers, knots, and a sprinkling of goldens at about one and a half acres. They were not scattered, hut neither were they closely packed. The grays made up about 75 per cent of the whole. The sitting flock looked like a large patch of snow.

S. F. Rathbun has sent me the following notes from Washington which illustrates the abundance of this species on the Pacific coast: May 12, 1927. ThIs morning was a dark one with a steady drizzling rain and light wind following the storm of the preceding two days. On reaching a very wide expanse of grassy salt meadows bordering the bay we found them dotted nearly everywhere with many of the smaller sandpipers and black-bellied plover, the birds being in small and large flocks and mostly grouped around the many shallow pools with which the meadows were flecked. It was one of the finest sights we have ever seen where shore-birds were concerned. The beautiful black-bellied plover In full nuptial dress were scattered over a wide area, rarely as single birds, but ordinarily a number in company and not infrequently in flocks of considerable size. One such flock consisted of 50 individuals, shortly after being joined by another of some SO birds, the combination of so many large black-breasted birds making a striking sight. When first alighting the birds would stand motionless, following which they would then move slowly about, although at times individuals might take wing, make several turns In the air and then alight among the others on the ground. When in its full plumage this plover is very noticeable even a long distance off, and when on the ground is always wary and alert. On alighting if it does not stand motionless, the bird will immediately move to the nearest height of land, if such there happens to be, and from such point of vantage will then scan the landscape, and should there happen to be a number in company you will always find two or three maintaining a lookout while the remainder move about rather unconcernedly.

At times associated with the many sandpipers would be a number of knots, but as a rule this latter species was found in flocks by Itself with this exception, that always with a flock of knots would be one or more black-bellied plover, such acting as sentinels for the former. And this being the case, the knots would then unconcernedly feed, as they seemed to rely implicitly on the plovers’ watchfulness, and we never noted this confidence misplaced. And this fact must in instances prove the salvation of those shore birds more or less unsuspicious and having this plover in company, for they seem to be governed by its actions. Sometimes, with a warning note, the sentinel would suddenly take wing and instantly was followed by the entire flock of other birds en masse, and all would then fly about perhaps for a time before once more alighting on some spot selected by the plover acting as the sentinel. At one time during our stay there were between three and four thousand of these plover on the meadows, and we were told that on the preceding day during the height of the storm this number must have been exceeded.

Courtship: I have never seen any signs of courtships during the spring migration, though I have often looked for it; nor have I ever seen any mention of it by others. Hence I infer that it is accomplished after the birds arrive on their breeding grounds. Herbert W. Brandt says in his Alaska notes:

During courtship the male spends considerable time on the wing, speeding about like a racer; and amid the constant din of wild-fowl notes his cheery whistle to Ice, to lee, is one of the pleasant sounds that greet the ear. But once the female is incubating her lord becomes as serious and silent as his sober black waistcoat, so that by early June it seemed as if every plover had left the country. He carries on his courtship regardless of weather, now mounting high, the next moment skimming low, with beautiful and bewildering grace, his wild whistling call meanwhile rising above the din of the storm. The advance guard of migrants of this plover arrived from the south in a nor wester” on May 7, passing like phantom voyagers, and the next instant were lost in mid-air in the swirling snow.

Nesting: Mr. Brandt has sent me the following notes on the nesting habits of the black-bellied plover in the Hooper Bay region of Alaska:

We found this jauntily attired plover the most common nesting species of the larger shore birds, frequenting the upland rolling tundra, where it preferred the ridges. It often chose for a nesting site the edge of one of the more prominent bluffs which formed the margin of the valleys, from which location the sitting bird could view the entire surrounding country. On these barren areas, where even the close-cropped moss struggles for existence, the vegetation Is mottled with black and white, and as a consequence the eggs, in spite of their exposed situation, are very difficult to find. One must almost touch them to be sure that they are there, so completely do they harmonize with their background. This protective coloration is so perfect that in one case a bird deserted its nest and the eggs remained unprotected for three days, during which time Jaegers, which were continuously hunting overhead and about, were, even with their sharp eyes, not able to distinguish them.

The nest is prepared by the female by scratching out in the moss a circular depression some 6 inches In diameter and nbout 1½ inches deep and lining it with a few white sprigs of reindeer moss. Here she lays her four large beautiful eggs, each set showing marked variation in size, shape, and markings. These eggs are distinctive, having a considerably lighter background than those of the golden plover, while the black markings are not so numerous and are more evenly distributed.

They do not nest In proximity to one another, as of the 40 or more nests observed no two were closer together than a quarter of a mile. The female is anything but a close sitter and departs from the eminence on which the nest is situated long before the intruder arrives. If the eggs are fresh, often neither bird exhibits any interest while a person is at the nest and they do not even make their appearance as long as he remains in their vicinity. As the hatching point approaches, however, the birds become more solicitous, protesting vigorously; the male develops Into a mutant sentry and rushes out to meet the intruder, repeatedly whistling ice-oh in a scolding tone, but staying well out of gun range. He is very combative and drives away any Jaeger or large gull that Infringes on his area. The female often leaves her eggs to join in the attack, and even the swift-flying long-tailed Jaeger can not avoid their onslaughts but beats a hasty retreat. I have seen a male plover strike a jaeger so hard that it reeled unsteadily in mid-air, hut the coward made to effort to retaliate.

Roderick MacFarlane’s notes contain the records of seven nests found in the vicinity of Franklin Bay, Mackenzie. The nests were all found between July 4 and 10, in 1864 and 1865. The first was on an island in the bay and was “composed of a few withered grasses, placed in a hole or depression on the side, or face, of a very gentle eminence.” At least two other nests were on islands. The female was snared on one nest, but was devoured by a snowy owl, which also ate the four eggs.

The nesting habits of the grey plover, as this species is called by Europeans, are apparently similar to those of our bird. Henry J. Pearson (1896), who found seven nests on Kolguev, describes them thus:

The positions of the nests were interesting; only two were on the lower ground near the Gobista; one was a mile both from the sea and the river; all the others: also several old nests: were on the tundra not far from the edge of the bluffs which form the margin of the river basin. Grey plovers seem to prefer this position, which gives them good posts of observation and allows them to take their young easily Into the marshes below to feed. We found a ready way of locating the nest of this bird was to watch a pair of Richardson’s skua hunting over the tundra, for as soon ns they approached the nest of the plovers, both the latter rose into the air and drove the skuas away. We never observed these birds breeding near each other, each pair appearing to take possession of about a mile of country. All the nests were slight depressions In the peat, lined with a little lichen.

If the black-bellied plover breeds in Greenland it must be very rare there, for Dr. W. Elmer Ekblaw tells me that he saw it only twice during the four years that he spent there. A flock that he saw on Sutherland Island, south of Etah, on August 17, 1914, was made up of old and young birds and the latter may have been reared there.

Eggs: Mr. Brandt has described the eggs so much better than I can that I prefer to quote from his notes, as follows:

Of the more than 40 nests that we examined of the black-bellied plover each held four eggs when its complement was completed. Owing to the proportionate thickness compared with its length the shape of the egg Is ovate pyriform Inclining to suhpyriform. The shell Is strong, finely granular, and on every egg I have seen the lustre is uniformly dull. The ground color and markings vary so much that hardly any two sets are the same. This ground color appears to follow three different shades, which are pinkish, greenish, or brownish. These types are often quite pronounced when the eggs are fresh, but the delicate tints fade with age. The pink type ranges from “pale ochraceous salmon” to “light huff”; the green type is “pale glass green”; while the brown variety Is often as dark as “cinnamon drab.” The eggs are never densely spotted and are always most heavily marked about the large end, but the very tip of this end is usually hare of spots, so that, if viewed upon the long axis, a wreath of spots is observed. These spots are usually medium In size and are distinct, although In a few unusual examples the spots become confluent at the large end. The primary markings are irregularly circular and never elongated, while upon the unusual egg these jet ornaments are of thumb-nail size In rare Instances the markings assume the form of short penlike scratches which mark the surface at various angles in the same manner as is occasionally found on the eggs of other members of the Charadrildae. The spots are uniformly “blackish brown” to black, but, where the pigment is spread more thinly, “deep brownish drab” or “dusky drab” tones may be noted, while here and there ” hazel “to “liver brown ” may be observed where the pigment Is extremely thin. The underlying spots are never numerous but always present and are more prominent on some specimens than on others. They vary In tone from “pale mouse gray” to “deep violet gray,” dependent upon the ground color, while one specimen with small primary spots is conspicuously beautified with “chicory blue.” A series of these noble eggs Is a study in black and whitish, and while the individual egg Is conspicuous, yet, when resting on their mottled birthplace, It is evident that nature has most happily endowed them with protective coloration.

The measurements of 174 eggs average 52.2 by 36.5 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 58 by 38, 55.5 by 38.2, 47.5 by 34.7 and 51.9 by 34 millimeters. The measurements of eggs from different localities do not throw much light on the relationship of the proposed subspecies; 120 eggs from I-looper Bay average 52.4 by 36.7, 14 eggs from Franklin Bay average 52 by 36, and 40 eggs from European localities average 51.6 by 35.9 millimeters.

Young: Several observers have proven that both sexes share in the incubation. Mr. Brandt says in his notes:

The first downy young appeared on June 21 after an incubation lasting 23 days, and they were just as inconspicuous and distinctive as were the eggs whence they emerged. At that time both parents were fearless in their defense, employing all the wing-dragging and distress maneuvers known to ground-nesting birds. This was exhibited even by the male, which is rather unusual. The downy young are variegated, sulphur-yellow and black above, and harmonize well with the abundant yellowish moss of the tundra. They conceal themselves by lying with head down and with their legs drawn under their bodies and are thus very difficult to detect.

Plumages: In natal down the young black-bellied plover resembles the young golden plover, except that the band around the neck and the under parts are purer white. The forehead, crown, and sides of the head are variegated with black, white, and bright yellows, varying from “lemon chrome” to “baryta yellow”; the back, rump, wings, and thighs are mottled with black and the above shades of yellow; the nape, a broad band around the neck and the entire under parts are pure white; the cheeks below the eyes are white bordered below by a black stripe extending from the bill to the auriculars.

In fresh juvenal plumage, as seen on the breeding grounds, the forehead and lores are mainly white; the crown and all the upper parts of the body are sepia, the feathers broadly tipped or notched with yellow, varying from “light cadmium yellow ” to “light orange yellow,” the spots being largest and brightest on the rump; the chin is white, but the rest of the under parts are buffy gray and pale buff, the feathers of the throat, breast, and flanks with median dusky streaks and faint dusky tips; the greater wing coverts are more narrowly edged, but more conspicuously notched than in the adult. Young birds are in juvenal plumage during migration, but the yellows have mostly faded to creamy white or white, though the rump spots are often quite yellow. A partial postjuvenal molt takes place late in the fall and in winter, involving much of the body plumage, but generally not the rump and back. Generally the molt is finished by December, but often not until January; by this time the light edgings and notches have worn away, giving the bird a very dark appearance. The first winter plumage is much like the adult winter, but it can be distinguished by the creamy or golden tips and notches of the juvenal wing coverts, by the faded yellow spots on the rump and by some old, worn scapulars and tertials.

Young birds have an incomplete and very variable first prenuptial molt, at which the sexes begin to differentiate. Young males acquire more of the adult nuptial plumage than young females; sometimes the breasts become almost wholly clear black; but in the upper parts there is generally only a sprinkling of new, adult, broadly whitetipped feathers, most of the first winter plumage being retained, with some old, worn scapulars, tertials, and tails. Young females show much less black on the breast and much more winter plumage on the back. Young birds apparently renew the primaries in February and March and the first postnuptial molt, the following summer and fall, produces the adult winter plumage.

Adults have a partial prenuptial molt between February and May, involving the body plumage, usually the tail, some of the wing coverts and tertials, but not all the scapulars, back and rump feathers. The complete postnuptial molt, begins with the acquisition of white feathers in the under body plumage in August and the body molt lasts through September, while the birds are migrating. The wings are molted later, from September to December. In winter plumage the black breast is entirely replaced by dull white, more or less marked or shaded with pale, ashy brown; and the upper parts are dull, ashy brown, the feathers tipped with white and subterminally shaded with blackish brown. No trace of the nuptial body plumage is left and adults and young look very much alike.

Food: The main feeding grounds of the black-bellied plover along the coasts are on the broad, tidal, sand flats, and mud flats; there are many such flats about Chatham and other places on Cape Cod, where the receding tide leaves many square miles of flat mud or sand, dotted with little islands of tall marsh grass. These are favorite resorts for plover, where they may be seen away off on the edge of the water, perhaps a mile from the shore, feeding on marine worms, small mollusks, crustaceans, and marine insects. As the advancing tide drives them in onto the marshes or sand dunes, they find other food; Mr. Mackay (1892) says that “they feed also on the larvae of one of the cutworms (Noctuidae) which they obtain on the marshes. They also eat the large whitish maritime grasshopper (Oedipoda maritiina).”

In the interior they fed, around the shores of the larger lakes and on open flats, on various forms of aquatic life. They also resort to some extent to meadows and upland pastures, where the grass is short, and to plowed fields; here they do some good by devouring grasshoppers, locusts, cutworms, grubs, beetles, and earthworms. They also eat some seeds and berries. Mr. Forbush (1912) says that Prof. Samuel Aughey found the stomachs of two of these birds crammed with the destructive Rocky Mountain locust.”

Grinnell, Bryant, and Storer (1918) mention a bird taken in California which had in its stomach “14 small snails, 1 small bivalve mollusk, and parts of 2 or more small crabs.” I once watched a bird in Florida, which fed for some time on the broken remains of a dead crab.

Behavior: Mr. Brandt, in his notes, pays the following tribute to the power of flight of this fine bird:

Only those who have met the lordly black-bellied plover on his native heath can appreciate how be seems to rule with a martial air the domains under his control. Powerful of wing stroke, trim of form as a grayhound, and erect of carriage, this, the largest of our common plovers, is the athlete of the wild birds of the North. Neatly vestured In his silvery white and ebony black, he is the fleetest racer of the air among a field of highly developed specialists. To consider him swifter than the graceful long-tailed Jaeger or the far-ranging golden plover is indeed a startling claim, but my judgment Is that the blackbellied plover can pass through the air faster than any other feathered creature in the North. At some time in the future it will be of great interest for some enterprising ornithologist to test out in his racing aeroplane the various flying speeds of the northern birds. It is my prediction that the shore birds will be found to lead the field there, and that the big black-bellied plover will surpass them all. The Pacific godwit is a wonderful air master, darting here and there with but the slightest effort, yet our plover seems to have only one gear, and that high speed. This may be beat appreciated during the gales that are of such frequent occurrence in that storm-swept land. The bird can quarter, or fly into the teeth of the wind, with such power as almost to disregard it.

The above picture is not overdrawn, for this plover is one of nut strongest fliers. Migrating flocks fly high in great bunches or massed formations, after the manner of many ducks. When flying short distances or when coming in over the flats they fly low and are often strung out in lines. Their flight seems to me to be steadier or more duck-like than that of the smaller shore birds. The powerful, pointed wings move very swiftly; Doctor Oberholser and I once made a number of accurate counts of the wing beats of this and several other Species in normal flight; eight counts for this plover averaged 240 beats a minute, or 4 heats a second; the slowest was 225 and the fastest 250.

The black-bellied plover is wont to stand erect, with head held high, in an attitude of dignified yet alert repose; it can be recognized by its bold outline almost as far as it can be seen, away out on the shimmering sands. It is a wary sentinel for all of its smaller companions and it is utterly useless to attempt to approach it in an open situation. It runs swiftly along at the water’s edge, stopping frequently to look about or striking quickly at some morsel of food. Dr. Charles W. Townsend (1905) says that they throw “the feet well out in front as they run. Their usual stride is 3 or 4 inches, but I have several times measured tracks that were 6 inches apart.” It is interesting to watch them bathing; they squat down in shallow water and spend much time in splashing, fluttering the wings, and dipping their heads; then comes the drying process, shaking the water out of the body plumage, flapping wings and wagging tails, followed by a long period of careful preening. Francis H. Allen writes to me of another method of bathing, as follows:

At one time they took to bathing, one after another, and one pretty little performance was to ily up about a foot and come splashing down into the water with much fluttering of wings. Qae started this play, and another and another took It up till half a dozen or more had gone through It. They also hopped on one foot in the water, as shore birds so often do on the beach, and, in this, one set the fashion and others followed It. This hopping altogether seems to be Quite common play with various species.

Like most shore birds, they can swim quite easily, as the following note from Francis M. Weston will show:

On March 27 I was wntching a small flock of black-bellied plovers feeding on a sand bar at low tide. One of the birds was separated from the others by a deep pool about 6 feet wide, and, in order to join them, entered the water and swam across the pool. While in the water, it reminded me very much of a diminutive gull: it floated high in the ‘ stern” with the forward part of the body low in the water. The transit of the pool was made so quickly that there was no time for a detailed study of the bird’s motions. Thinking that the plover was wounded and had had to swim through lack of ability to fly, I approached the flock, when all took wing and flew to another bar several hundred yards distant. An examination of the pool showed that it was more than a foot deep: far too deep for a bird of that size to wade.

Voice: To my mind the whistle of the black-bellied plover is one of the sweetest and most fascinating of all the Limicoline voices; it is not quite as melodious as t.hat of the piping plover, nor is it quite as startling as the loud call of the yellowlegs; but it heralds the coming of one of our finest shore birds and hence it produces a thrill. The sportsman loves to hears it and he can imitate it quite easily. John T. Nichols has contributed the following notes on it:

The flight note of this species Is a clear, mellow, ringing whistle: pe-oo-ee. Although shortened and otherwise varied at different times, this note is the only one ordinarily heard from single Individnals or small flocks. In general it may be said that the diagnostic flight or identification note of plovers Is used more extensively than in yellowlegs and other species, for instance, and that they seerix to have less variety of calls.

A second note heard from a flock of birds either in the air or alighted, and In chorus when such a flock is flushed, circling and hovering in uncertain manner, Is a soft, mellow quu-hu. A dissimilar unloud cuk cuk cuk, cuk, cuic, cuk cuk cuk culc which I heard from a single bird in Florida in September, alIghted with decoys and rnnnlng about, completes my knowledge of the calls of this plover.

The ordinary call note, referred to above, has a sweet, mellow, and plaintive quality, with a tinge of wildness, which enlivens the solitude of the ocean beaches; I should write it pee-u-wee, the first, loud, rich, and prolonged, the second lower and shorter, and the third higher pitched, more plaintive, and softer. Grinnell, Bryant, and Storer (1918) describe the note as “a loud, ringing wher-reli, far reaching and, at a distance, clear and mellow in quality.” Dr. E. R. P. Janvrin tells me that he has “also heard them utter a loud note resembling that of the common tern, but no so harsh and more musical, which is apparently an alarm note.”

Field marks: The black axillars, on the under side of the wing next to the body, are very conspicuous when the bird is flying and form the most reliable field mark in all plumages. The general outline of the bird is characteristic, with its large head, short, heavy bill, and erect carriage. The upper parts are light colored in all plumages, especially so in spring, the upper tail coverts are nearly white and there is a white band in the spread wing. In the fully black-breasted plumage the black of the under parts does not extend so far back as on the golden plover and the crown is much whiter. The presence of a hind toe may be detected at a short distance. FaiL: The southward migration begins early in July and spreads out entirely across the continent. Before the end of August the last of the black-bellied plover have left their breeding grounds. The first of the adults sometimes reach Massachusetts as early as the second week in July; my earliest date is July 7; but the main flight comes in August and most of the adults have left by the middle of September, though I have seen adults here as late as October 29. The young birds come later; I have seen them as early as August 10, but they usually do not come in any numbers until September, and the heaviest flight is between September 15 and October 15; a few linger into November. While here they mingle freely with knots, turnstones, and red-backed sandpipers; any of the smaller sandpipers are likely to be associated with them.

Professor IRowan (1923) gives much the same dates for Alberta and says that the young birds are plentiful through October and “may stay right into November, even for a week or two after the lakes have frozen over.” M. P. Skinner tells me that he has seen them in Yellowstone Park late in September with the thermometer down to zero. Mr. Rathbun tells me that “the black-bellied plover is a regular and somewhat common spring and autumn migrant along the coast of Washington and about Puget Sound.” D. E. Brown’s notes from that region give dates extending from August 26 to October 2.

Game: It is as a game bird that the black-bellied plover or “beetlehead,” as it is called on Cape Cod, has achieved its greatest reputation. There is no shore bird that is better known or more eagerly sought; for it is not only a large plump bird but it is a swift flier, and one of the wariest, most sagacious, and most difficult of the beach birds to secure. To meet with any success in shooting this plover the sportsman must be familiar with its habits in the locality where he is shooting, must be well concealed in a skillfully made blind, and must know how to imitate its notes perfectly. The old black-bellied birds are particularly ~vary and will not come to the decoys unless the surroundings are quite natural in appearance. Mr. Mackay (1892) says:

After many unsuccessful attempts to capture them one becomes imbued with the fact that the old birds are well calculated, under ordinary circumstances, to avoid danger; they succumb only to those sportsmen who have served a long apprenticeship, and who have acquired a knowledge of their habits.

John C. Cahoon (1888) a veteran gunner and collector, has described various methods used on Cape Cod, as follows:

Stands are built on the meadows and marshes by cutting bushes of about the proper height and sticking them in the grass or mud so as to form a circle of convenient size for one or more gunners. If bushes can not be found handily, dry seaweed, grass, and other materials are sometimes used. On tile mud flats bunches of sedge grass afford concealment, but the most successful method Is to make a bar in the sand flats and sink a box, or dig a pit in the, sand. It requires considerable labor to build and keep a bar in order, also to sink a box. The bar is laid bare before any of the surrounding fiats, consequently the birds, finding no other feeding place uncovered, fly to the bar. One other way in which large numbers are sometimes taken is to find out the locality on the high benches where they roost during high tide, end digging a hole in the sand for a place of concealment. They usually come to the same spot to roost each high tide and by examining the beach these places can be easily found, by the numerous footprints in the sand. The blind should be completed soon after the tide begins to flow, as these birds leave the flats as soon as the tide commences to cover them. For the young, or “pale bellies,” all that is needed is a pit dug with the sand thrown out around the top edge and a few decoys placed out the right distance from the pit. For the old “black breasts” it is necessary to have the top covered over with boards and dry sand spread on them and have an opening In the sides and front, to shoot from. It is best not to put out any decoys, as the old birds will seldom alight to decoys on the beaches, even if they are made to look very natural.

Most of my shooting has been done on the flats or beaches, from sedge grass or seaweed blinds. On the inner side of Monomoy the water is very shallow and at dead low tide the birds are away off, perhaps a mile from shore, on the edge of the water. The flats near shore are dotted with islands of sedge grass, where the gunner can easily conceal himself in the tall grass, with the decoys set out on the open mud. As the tide comes in rapidly over the shallows, preceded by an advancing line of foam, the birds begin to move, flying up to the marshes or beaches. A blind may be made on the inner side of the beach by digging a deep hole in the sand and piling up seaweed around it. In either case the blind must be in some well-established fly way between the feeding grounds and the resting places and must be well enough made to offer good concealment. The best shooting comes on the first part of the ebb and the latter part of the flood tide. The gunner must keep out of sight and be ever on the alert, for at any moment he may hear the wild, ringing cry or see single birds or small flocks dash by at high speed. They seldom alight to the decoys, though they often circle over them and are usually much scattered.

I have often found it good sport to stalk “beetleheads” on the beaches, where they rest at high tide. One kills very few birds in this way, as the chances are all in favor of the bird. Young birds are less wary than old blackbreasts and a few can sometimes be obtained by crawling up back of a sand dune and shooting them as they jump. This involves plenty of exercise, requires perseverance, and calls for quick work with the gun, and the bird generally escapes. Walter H. Rich (1907) has described this very well, as follows:

Yet let the gunner peep ever so carefully over the edge of the bank where he lies bidden and each wary feeder becomes at once a motionless statue. Had he not seen their animation a moment before he might think he had come upon a wooden congregation of decoys. While he is still they make no movement, but let hIm stir, either for nearer approach or to draw hack from view that he may get a better position, and the instant his head goes out of sight hehind the long salt grass the flock noiselessly takes wing with easy, graceful flight, alighting some hundreds of yards away to feed comfortably until the dangerous admIrer, wIth stealthy caulion and much toilsome trudging through the shifting sand dunes, once more approaches too near for safety, when the same performance again takes place. It makes lIttle difference how tbe approach is managed, the result Is generally the same; the gunner peers cautiously at the spot where a moment since the flock was busily feeding, and seeing them not soon discovers them 200 yards away, apparently just as ready to tease him as before.

Winter: These plover, no longer black bellied now, spend the winter in the southern United States and from there southward to central Brazil and Peru. They winter commonly as far north as South Carolina and the southern half of California, less commonly in North Carolina, and casually farther north. I have seen them in immense flocks on the great mud flats among the Florida keys and we had them with us all winter on the beaches and sandy islands about Tampa Bay. They showed their sagacity by their confiding tameness on the protected bathing beaches and by their extreme wildness on the outer islands, where it was almost impossible to approach them within gunshot range.

The gray plover of the Eastern Hemisphere goes as far south in winter as southern Africa, Madagascar, and Australia. Charles Barrett, referring to Australia, says in his notes:

This species sometimes associates in large flocks, hut more often is seen singly, or in pairs, feeding on mud flats and along the sea beaches. It is a wary bIrd. Arriving in spring (September) or early summer in the southern portions of the continent it becomes widely distributed, but seems to restrict itself mainly to tfie seashore. However, it does wander inland at times, having been recorded, for example, from the midlands of Tasmania. It leaves Australia apparently in March or April (autumn) on the northern flight to its breeding haunts.


Breeding range: The breeding range of the black-bellied plover in North America is confined to the Arctic coast north to Alaska (Wainwright, Point Barrow, Colville River delta, Barter Island, Collison Point, and probably Demarcation Point); northern Mackenzie (Cape Bathurst and probably Cape Kellett); Victoria Land (Taylor Island) ; and Franklin (Fury Point and Melville Peninsula). East to Franklin (Melville Peninsula); possibly Keewatin (Cape Fullerton); and possibly Greenland (Sutherland Island). South to possibly Keewatin (Cape Fullerton); Mackenzie (probably Bernard Harbor, Coleville Hills, and Franklin Bay); and Alaska (Hooper Bay). West to Alaska (Hooper Bay and Wainwright).

In common with several other shore birds, nonbreeding specimens of this species are frequently found during the summer months at points far south of the breeding grounds. At this season they have been taken or observed in Maine (Western Egg Rock) ; Massachusetts (Monomoy Island, Marthas Vineyard, and Harvard); New York (Quogue, Freeport, Rockaway, Long Beach, and Geneva); New Jersey (Tuckerton, Great Bay, and Absecon Bay); Ohio (Bay Point); Virginia (Cobb Island and Cape Charles region); South Carolina (Mount Pleasant, Magnolia Beach, and White Point Swash); Florida (Fort De Soto, Amelia Island, Key West, Fernandina, and Daytona Beach); Alabama (Dauphin Island); Louisiana (Breton Island); Texas (Corpus Christi); Jamaica (Port Henderson); and the Galapagos Islands.

In the Palaearctic region it breeds from the eastern tundras of Arctic Europe eastward throughout Arctic Asia to Kamchatka and on Kolguev and the Siberian Islands.

Winter range: The American winter range extends north to Washington (Strait of Juan de Fuca, and Dungeness Spit); Texas (Brownsville, Corpus Christi, Rockport, and Matagorda); Louisiana (Breton Islands); Alabama (Dauphin Island); and Virginia (Wallops Island). East to Virginia (Wallops Island and Sandy Island); North Carolina (Pea Island and Southport); South Carolina (Mount Pleasant and Port Royal); Georgia (Darien, Cumberland, and St. Marys); Florida (Amelia Island, Fort George, Seabreeze, Mosquito Inlet, Lake Okeechobee, Miami, and Upper Matecumbe Key); the Bahama Islands (Abaco, Eleuthera, Watling, Acklin, and Great Inagua) ; Haiti (Monte Christi) ; probably French Guiana (Cayenne); and Brazil (Cajetuba and the Amazon region). South to Brazil (Amazon region ) ; and Peru (Callao). West to Peru (Callao, Chimbote, and Tumbez); Ecuador (Bay of Santa Elena); the Galapagos Islands (Albemarle); Colombia (Cartagena); probably Costa Rica (mouth of the Martina River); probably Guatemala (Chiapam); Gaxaca (San Mateo); Lower California (San Jose del Cabo, La Paz, and San Geronimo Island); California (Coronado, Wilmington, Santa Cruz Island, Los Banos, San Francisco, and mouth of Eel River); Oregon (Newport); and Washington (Point Chehalis and Strait of Juan de Fuca).

Three specimens at Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in December, 1872, constitute the only winter record for that region.

In the eastern hemisphere it winters from the coasts of southern Europe and Asia to southern Africa, Madagascar, the Seychelles, and Australia.

Spring Migration: Early dates of spring arriva.l are: Pennsylvania, Neville Island, April 26; New Jersey, Atlantic City, April 27, Cape May, April 30, and Ocean City, May 5; New York, Montauk Point Light, April 30, Great South Bay, May 1, and Long Beach, May 2; Rhode Island, South Auburn, April 23, and Newport, May 9; Massachusetts, Cape Cod, April 19, Monomoy Island, April 22, and Billingsgate, April 27; Nova Scotia, Pictou, May 17; Missouri, Courtney, April 1, and Concordia, April 19; Illinois, Hennepin, April 2, and Rantoul, April 16; Indiana, Knox County, March 30; Ohio, Oberlin, April 24; Michigan, Forestville, May 2; Ontario, Toronto, May 11, and Oshawa, May 14; Iowa, Keokuk, April 22, Sioux City, May 8, and New Hampton, May 12; Wisconsin, Racine, April 14, and Leeds Center, April 17; Minnesota, Heron Lake, April 21, and Hutchinson, May 7; Nebraska, Vesta, April 21, and Lincoln, May 10; South Dakota, Pitrodie, May 1, and Vermilion, May 3; North Dakota, Rice Lake, May 5, Bathgate, May 9, and Harrisburg, May 10; Manitoba, Margaret, May 5, and Whitewater, May 20; Saskatchewan, Wiseton, May 4, and Indian Head, May 9; Mackenzie, Fort Resolution, June 2; Colorado, Denver, May 11, and Loveland, May 14; Utah, Provo, May 11; Alberta, Camrose, May 1, Sturgeon River, May 12, Tofield, May 19, Veteran, May 22, and Fort Chipewyan, May 23; British Columbia, Comox, April 23, and Courtenay, April 24; Yukon, Dawson, May 20; and Alaska, Kuiu Island, May 3, Fort Kenai, May 6, Hooper Bay, May 9, and mouth of the Yukon River, May 12.

Last dates of spring departure are: Panama, mouth of the Rio Venado, March 27; Bahama Islands, Andros, April 14; Green Cay, April 29, and Nassau, April 28; Florida, St. Marks, May 8, New Smyrna, May 14, Pensacola., May 16, Daytona Beach, May 24, and Cedar Keys, May 27; Alabama, Dauphin Island, May 19; Georgia, Savannah, May 13; South Carolina, Frogmore, May 17, and Hilton Head, May 24; North Carolina, Cape Hatteras, May 20, and Churchs Island, May 30; Virginia, Cobb Island, May 19, and Wallops Island, May 26; Maryland, Dulaneys Valley, May 13; Pennsylvania, Erie, May 19; New Jersey, Cape May County, May 23, and Elizabeth, May 30; New York, Jamaica, May 26, Lake Canandaigua, May 30, and Orient Point, May 30; Connecticut, Westport, May 28, Fairfield, May 30, and Norwalk, June 1; Rhode Island, Block Island, May 29, and South Auburn, June 5; Massachusetts, Ipswich, May 30, Dennis, June 2, and Cape Cod, June 6; Quebec, Godbout, June 9; Louisiana, Mermerton, May 2; Missouri, Concordia, May 23; Kentucky, Bowling Green, June 3; Illinois, Chicago, May 26, and Waukegan, May 27; Indiana, Indianapolis, May 30; Ohio, Oberlin, May 22, Youngstown, May 23, and Painesville, May 27; Michigan, Detroit, May 26, Jackson, May 28, and Charity Island, June 1; Ontario, Bowmanville, May 25, Toronto, May 26, Kingston, May 30; Iowa, Emmetsburg, May 25, National, May 26, and Sioux City, May 31; Wisconsin, Shiocton, May 27, and Madison, May 30; Minnesota, Waseca, May 24, Hallock, May 26, and Heron Lake, June 2; Texas, Point Isabel, June 2, and Corpus Christi, June 7; Oklahoma, Norman, May 25; Kansas, Wichita County, May 22; Nebraska, Alda, May 21; South Dakota, Vermilion, May 24, and Forestburg, June 1; North Dakota, Jamestown, May 15, Towner County, May 25, and Jerusalem, June 1; Manitoba, Margaret, May 31, and Shoal Lake, June 3; Saskatchewan, Hay Lake, June 2,~ and Kutanajan Lake, June 10; Colorado, Denver, May 30; Montana, Baker, May 23; Alberta, Flagstaff, June 1, and Fort Chipewyan, June 8; Yucatan, Cozumel Island, April 18; Oaxaca, San Mateo del Mar, May 15; Vera Cruz, Tampico, April 10; Lower California, San Geronimo Island, April 14, and San Quentin, May 10; California, Alameda, May 21, and Santa Barbara, May 26; Washington, “east side of mountains,” May 18; and British Columbia, Masset, June 16.

Fall migration: —Early dates of fall arrival are: British Columbia, Comox, July 5; Oregon, coastal region, July 26; California, Venice, July 4; Alameda, July 22, and Santa Barbara, July 24; Alberta, Alliance, August 3; Colorado, Denver, August 21, and Barr, August 31; Saskatchewan, Kiddleston, July 7, and Last Mountain Lake, August 19; Manitoba, Oak Lake, July 31, and Shoal Lake, August 8; North Dakota, Grafton, August 23; South Dakota, Forestburg, August 11; Nebraska, Lincoln, August 7; Texas, Rockport, August 12, Tivoli, August 15, and San Angelo, August 31; Wisconsin, Lake Koshkonong, August 14; Iowa, Burlington, August 13; Ontario, Toronto, July 23, Beamsville, August 2, and Hamilton, August 9; Michigan, Little Lake, July 24, Greenville, August 10, and Charity Island, August 20; Ohio, Painesville, August 12, and Columbus, August 23; Indiana, Millers, August 8; Illinois, La Grange, August 21, and Chicago, August 24; Quebec, Godbout, July 30, and Bras d’Or, August 5; Maine, Portland, July 31; Massachusetts, Essex, July 18, Attleboro Falls, July 21, and Monomoy Island, July 7; Rhode Island, Point Judith, July 12, and South Auburn, August 13; New York, Quogue, July 1, Montauk Point Light, July 20, Orient, July 24, and Shinnecock Bay, August 5; New Jersey, Great Bay, July 19, Stone Harbor, July 22, and Cape May, July 27; Pennsylvania, Erie, August 1, and Whites Island, August 10; Maryland, Plum Point, August 10; Virginia, Cobb Island, August 19; North Carolina, Charlotte Inlet, July 4, Cape Fear, July 7, and Carolina Beach, July 10; Georgia, Savannah, August 12; Alabama, Dauphin, and Petit Bois Islands, August 21; Florida, Key West, August 8, Daytona Beach, August 17, and Pensacola, August 28; and Lesser Antilles, Barbados, August 22, and Grenada, August 27.

Late dates of fall departure are: Alaska, Wainwright, September 13, Taku River, September 26, Kenai River, October 7, and Craig, November 14; British Columbia, Okanagan Landing, September 28, and Chilliwack, October 23; Alberta, Verrnilion-Innisfrea, September 16, and Whitford Lake, October 29; Montana, Priest Butte Lakes, September 4; Colorado, Fort Collins, October 28, and Denver, November 13; Mackenzie, Great Bear Lake, September 5, an(I Fort Simpson, September 17; Keewatin, Swampy Lake, September 5; Manitoba, Oak Lake, October 31; North Dakota, Grafton, October 27; South Dakota, Fort Sisseton, October 25, and Sioux Falls, November 7; Nebraska, Lincoln, October 21; Kansas, Hamilton, October 13, and Lawrence, October 29; Minnesota, Minneapolis, October 28; Wisconsin, Lake Mills, October 2; Iowa, Kcokuk, October 28, and Sioux City, November 3; Ontario, Point Pelee, October 18, Ottawa, November 11, and Kingston, November 16; Michigan, Detroit, November 3, Sault Ste. Marie, November 5, and Charity Island, November 21; Ohio, Youngstown, November 11, Painesville, November 29; Illinois, Chicago, November 3, and La Grange, November 6; Missouri, Independence, November 5, and Courtney, November 9; Franklin, Winter Island, August 17; Nova Scotia, Pictou, October 11, and Wolfville, November 8; Quebec, Montreal, November 1, and Tabusintoc, Nov~einber 3; Massachusetts, Monomoy Island, November 14, and Boston, November 29; Con: necticut, South Norwalk, November 7; New York, Orient, November 26, and Long Beach, November 26; New Jersey, Sandy Hook, October 25, and Cape May County, November 7; and Pennsylvania, Erie, November 10.

Casual records: Two specimens of the black-bellied plover were obtained on Clipperton Island, November 19, 1901; Gundlach reported taking two at San Juan Bay, Porto Rico, Stahl had two others, while F. A. Potts saw one near Central Aguirre on September 9 and 10, 1921, and a flock of six or seven noted on several occasions near Salinas, during December, 1920; the species is of casual occurrence in Bermuda (Mangrove Bay, September 5, 1848, Sand Hills, November 5, 1874, and Warnick Camp, November 13, 1874); both Reinhardt and Hagerup record them from Greenland; and one (possibly the European form) was obtained in late October, at Kaalualu, Hawaii (Henshaw). Although seemingly on the regular migration route, the only records for Arkansas are two specimens taken at Fort Smith, September 19, 1892.

Egg dates: Bering Sea coast of Alaska: 24 records, May 27 to June 4; 16 records, May 29 and 30. Arctic coasts of Alaska and Canada: 26 records, June 10 to July 11; 13 records, June 28 to July 5.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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