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Scientific name: Charadrius wilsonia
Strongly coastal in distribution, the Wilson’s Plover is rarely seen inland. While northern populations are migratory, most are resident. As in most plovers, the Wilson’s Plover typically runs on land rather than walking. Coyotes and raccoons are among the many predators that nesting Wilson’s Plovers face on their open, coastal breeding habitats.
Wilson’s Plovers are territorial during the breeding season, but often gather in flocks during migration and winter. Neighboring males defending territories sometimes conduct parallel runs along their shared territorial boundary. Other displays and chases are also used to maintain territories.
Photograph © Greg Lavaty
Description of the Wilson’s Plover
Photograph © Greg Lavaty
The Wilson’s Plover is sandy brown above, white below, with a dark breast band and a relatively long, dark bill. Black breast band. White forehead.
Breast band is brownish.
Seasonal change in appearance
Juveniles resemble females.
Beaches and tidal flats.
Crustaceans and insects.
Forages by walking and running.
Resident in coastal Florida and breeds along the southern Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. Winters in Mexico and Central America.
The male makes the scrape for the nest, but the female may modify it.
Parents do not help chicks get out of the egg, but once hatched the parents carry the shell far from the nest.
A sharp “whit” call is given.
- Semipalmated Plovers have shorter, orange-based bills. Piping and Snowy Plovers are paler above and have smaller bills.
The nest is a scrape in the sand.
Color: Buff with darker markings.
Incubation and fledging:
– Young hatch at 23-25 days.
– Young fledge (leave the nest) shortly after hatching but remain with the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the Wilson’s Plover
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Wilson’s Plover – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
PAGOLLA WILSONIA WILSONIA (Ord)
All along the Atlantic coast from New Jersey to Florida is a broken chain of sea-girt islands, with broad or steep, sandy or shelly beaches on the ocean side, backed in many places by shifting sand dunes and bordered on the inner or bay side by wide marshes of waving grass or extensive flats exposed at low tide. Here, on the broader, more open sand flats, among a scattered array of shells, pebbles, and other d6hris cast up by the sea, or in the flat hollows among the sand dunes, this little sand plover makes its home, within sound of the pounding surf and fanned by the ocean breezes that carve the dunes into fantastic shapes. Here, if we love to wander in these seaside solitudes, we may see this gentle bird running along the beach ahead of us, his feet twinkling so fast that we can hardly see them; he is unafraid, as he stops and turns to watch us; the black bands on his head and breast help to obliterate his form and he might be mistaken for an old seashell or bit of driftwood; but, as we draw near, he turns and runs on ahead of us, leading us thus on and on up the beach. There is an air of gentleness in his manner and an air of wildness in his note as he flies away.
Spring: As the northern limit of the winter range extends well lip to central Florida, the Wilson plover has not far to migrate. It is an early migrant. We saw it in Pinellas County, Fla., as early as February 7, where a few were present all winter. C. J. Pennock’s notes record it at Charlotte Harbor on February 21 and 24, on two successive years. Arthur T. Wayne (1910) says that it arrives in South Carolina late in March; his earliest date is March 26.
Courtship: During the month of March, when this species became common in the vicinity of Tampa Bay, Fla., I had some opportunities to watch its simple courtship display. A male shot on March 14 had sexual organs developed nearly to full breeding size and many of the birds were in pairs. In making the display the male runs around the female in a crouching, hunchbacked attitude, with the head lowered, the tail depressed and spread, and the wings drooping. The female seems indifferent at first, but finally she accepts the caresses of the male. They seem to be preoccupied in their love affairs and allow a close approach.
Nesting: On the sandy reefs and broad ocean beaches of the outer islands about Bulls Bay, S. C., we found several nests of Wilson plover on May 22 and 23, 1915. The nests were on the higher portions of the beaches where the dry, sandy plains were sprinkled with bits of broken shells, small stones, and pieces of driftwood or other rubbish and where a few scattered weeds and grasses were the only signs of vegetation. The nests were usually placed near some such object, or partially sheltered by a few blades of grass, but some were out on the open sand or in the flat sandy hollows between the dunes; they were always beyond the reach of ordinary tides. Oyster-catchers and least terns were nesting in the same localities and not far away willets were nesting in the grassy places.
Among the Florida Keys, on May 8, 1903, we found a small colony nestings on Lake Key; there were beaches of finely broken shells surrounding a small shallow pond, more or less overgrown with small, scattered red mangroves. A colony of least terns were nesting here and a few pairs of black-necked stilts. Four nests of the plover were found, one out on the open beach among the terns’ nests and the others under the shelter of little mangrove seedlings. These and all the other nests of Wilson plover that I have found were mere hollows in the sand with no apparent attempt at lining, but others have occasionally found them evidently lined with bits of broken shell. Henry Thurston (1913) found a nest “snuggled closely to the stump” of a “ripped up” palmetto; the eggs were “resting in a small hole that had been scooped out in the sand and adorned with a few twigs.” He left this nest and returned later in an attempt to see the female leave the nest. As. he “got within a few yards the male, unobserved before as he was facing him and was therefore practically invisible, piped several notes. Swiftly and mouse-like the female glided from her treasures, crouching low beside the stump and did not stand erect until she reached the water’s edge.”
The Wilson plover might almost be said to nest in colonies, although the nests are usually not close together; N. B. Moore says in his notes that they are never nearer than 20 yards apart. Oscar E. Baynard (1914) found a colony of at least 50 pairs nesting on a bank of white sand, probably half a mile long and barely a foot above high-water line. He relates an interesting experience in changing eggs from one nest to another. One of a set of three heavily incubated eggs that he had taken hatched out in his possession; as he could not find the nest from which they came, he hunted up another nest which contained fresh eggs; and following is his account of what happened:
I took these eggs and placed the young bird and my two eggs In their place, and then moved off and sat down to watch developments. In a few. minutes the mother bird ran up to the nest, looked hard at the young bird~ which had run off about 2 feet from the eggs, circled the nest several times, and then squatted down on the two eggs and began calling softly to the young bird. In a few ulnutes he crept up to the old bird. She looked him over for fully two minutes, then decided to adopt him, raked him under her out of the sun, and settled (town RS contentedly as if the family were really her o~vn. Two days later I ra~ the boat close to the beach opposite this nest. The old bird ran off, and up jumped three young and took off up the beach after her.
Donald J. Nicholson tells me that he once found a nest “about three-quarters of the way up the side of a sand dune under the shelter of a small bunch of grass.” He has also found this plover breeding on Merritts Island, Fla., “on the exposed sandy patches aleng the Indian River and around the water holes throughout the island “; here some of the nests were sheltered among open growths of pickerelweed or Salicorma.
Dr. Frank M. Chapman (1891) found this bird breeding commonly near Corpus Christi, Tex., and says: “A nest found April 25 was placed in some short grass about ~O feet from the water. It was composed of a few straws placed at the bottom of a slight depression in the sand, and contained three fresh eggs.”
Eggs: The Wilson plover ordinarily lays three eggs, often only two, and very rarely four; I have a set of four eggs in my collection, taken by Dr. Eugene E. Murphey on the coast of South Carolina. N. B. Moore says in his notes that a day often intervened between the laying of eggs, once an interval of two days occurred and in one nest the third egg was laid on the ninth day after the first. The eggs are ovate to short ovate in shape and they have no gloss. The ground colors vary from “cream buff” to “cartridge buff.” They are usually thickly and quite evenly covered with small spots, small irregular blotches and scrawls of black, with a few similar, underlying markings of pale shades of “Quaker drab.” The measurements of 66 eggs average 35.7 by 26.2 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 38.5 by 26, 37 by 27, 31.5 by 26, and 34 by 25 millimeters.
Young: N. B. Moore observed that the period of incubation is 24 or 25 days. I have no data showing that the male shares in the duty of incubation, but he certainly shows considerable interest in the care of the young. The young are able to leave the nesting hollow soon after they are hatched and they are strong and swift runners, as well as adepts in the art of hiding. The female is a past master in the art of decoying an intruder away from her young. Mr. Thurston (1913) has described this strategy very well, as follows:
As I approached this strip, seemingly from nowhere there appeared a female plover, calling plaintively. Now I knew that the season of nesting bad begun. She was soon joined by a male and another female that chorused with her their wishes for my departure. How she coaxed me to follow her! This I did for a time, trailing behind as she struggled along on one leg, the other crumpled under her. Tediously she kept ahead, calling: sobbing, I should have said: one of the most pathetic yet beautiful notes I have heard. Surely If ever there was a pIcture of parental distress It was she. Finally, as though exhausted, she sank to the sand and iay~ on her side gasping. The other two dew back and Lath overhead, whistling plaintively, but she heeded them not, nor my approach, and lay there panting. I was sure now that she was tired by her exertion and hurried to catch her, only to learn that she was “playing possum.” She allowed me to almost touch her, and fluttered off again. Evidently she was not satisfied that her nest was safe and she tried new tactics this time. With seemingly broken wings that trailed as though helpless at her sides, she started down the beach and once more I followed after, but this time increased my speed. As I had about caught up with her she gave a joyous whistle, sprang into the air, and those wounded wIngs carried her like a bullet around a loint of wooded land and out of sighL She had accomplished her purpose, as I had hopelessly lost the place from which she started. Search as I might, and did, I could not find It.
Plumages: The upper parts of the downy young Wilson plover are of about the same color pattern as the egg to make it equally invisible on the sand. The crown, back, rump, wings, and thighs are “cream buff,” mottled with black; the forehead, sides of the head, and under parts are white; there is a broad white collar around the neck, and the outer joint of the wing is white.
The juvenal plumage, in what specimens I have seen, July 20 to 27,is much like that of the adult female in winter, but the colors arc duller and the breast band is incomplete or only suggested. Perhaps earlier in the season these birds might have shown huffy edgings which had since worn away. Probably a post.juvenal molt takes place, but II have not been able to trace it. In the first winter plumage the sexes are alike; but at the first prenuptial molt, in February and March, the male assumes, partially at least, the black markings on the head and breast. At the next complete molt, the first postnuptial, the adult winter plumage is acquired.
Adults have an incomplete prenuptial molt, from January to March, involving the body plumage, and a complete postnuptial molt, from July to October. The sexes are quite unlike in nuptial plumage, the black markings on the head and breast of the male being replaced by “wood brown” in the female. In xvinter they are much alike, but I believe that in fully adult males there is always more or less black in the breast band.
Food: Audubon (1840) says of these birds:
They feed fully as much by night as by day, and the large eyes of this, as of other species of the genus, seem to fit them for nocturnal searchings. Their food consists princIpally of small marine insects, minute shellfish, and sand worms, with which they mix particles of sand.
The stomachs of five birds taken on the coast of Alabama by Arthur H. Howell (1924) contained “crabs and shrimps, with a few mollusks and flies.” One taken in Porto Rico by Stuart T. Danforth (1926) contained Dytiscid larvae and adults.
Behavior: Audubon (1840) describes the behavior of this plover very well, as follows:
The flight of this species, is rapid, elegant, and protracted. While traveling from one sand beach or island to another, they fly low over the land or water, emitting a fine, clear, soft note. Now and then, when after the breeding season they form into flocks of 20 or 30, they perform various evolutions In the air, cutting backward and forward, as if inspecting the spot on which they wish to alight, and then suddenly descend, sometimes on the sea beach and sometimes on the more elevated sands at a little distance from it. They do not run so nimbly as the piping plovers nor are they nearly so shy. I have In fact frequently walked up so as to be within 10 yards or so of them. They seldom mix with other species, and they show a decided preference to solitary uninhabited spots.
Voice: My field notes, written over 20 years ago, refer to Wilson plover flying about their breeding grounds, whistling their musical call notes, somewhat suggestive of the notes of the piping plover, but not so loud nor so rich in tone. Francis M. Weston writes to me that “the note of anxiety, when on the ground, is a sharp wheet, beween a chirp and a whistle. On the wing, it gives a low tut-tut, somewhat like the alarm note of the wood thrush, but pitched lower and never of more than two syllables.” C. J. Pennock says, in his notes, that when they have eggs or young “they fly about close overhead, or run along the sand, calling queet, queet, quit it, quit it, in a high-pitched tone, frequently three or four birds joining in the vocal protest.” John T. Nichols says in his notes: “The commonest note of this species on the ground and on the wing is a ternlike quip, sometimes double qui-pip. Less frequently, on the ground, it has a surprisingly human whistled whip.”
Field marks: The best field character of the Wilson plover is the long, heavy, wholly black bill, which is very conspicuous in all plumages; it is relatively larger and more prominent than that of the black-bellied plover. The Wilson is decidedly larger than the semipalmated or the piping plover; it is slightly lighter in color than the former and much darker than the latter. I have noticed that in flight it appears quite dark colored above, with no conspicuous white except in the lateral tail feathers.
Winter: We recorded this species as a winter resident on the west coast of Florida as far north as Tampa Bay, but it was rare in midwinter and did not become common until March. It frequented the sand bars and sandy islands on the Gulf shore, together with other small plovers and sandpipers. It was much tamer than any of the other shore birds and less active; it was the only one of the whole tribe that could be .openly approached on the unprotected beaches. It was usually seen singly, apart from the others, and never in flocks.
Range: Southern United States, the West Indies, Central and South America.
Breeding range: The Wilson plover breeds north to probably Lower California (La Paz); Texas (Brownsville, Corpus Christi, probably Rockport, probably Matagorda Island, Houston, and Galveston); Louisiana (probably Cameron Parish and the Breton Island Reservation); Mississippi (Dog Key) ; probably Alabama (Bayou Labatre and Dauphin Island); western Florida (Milton and probably James Island) ; and formerly New Jersey (Beach Haven). East to formerly New Jersey (Beach Haven, probably Great Egg Harbor, and Cape May); Virginia (Cobb Island and Cape Charles); North Carolina (Pea Island, Beaufort, and Cape Fear) ; South Carolina (Bulls Bay, Sullivan Island, and Frogmore); Georgia (Tybee Island, Ossabaw Island, and Blackbeard Island) ; the east coast of Florida (Fernandina, Amelia Island, Matanzas Inlet, Mosquito Inlet, and Coronado Beach); the Bahama Islands (New Providence, Rum Cay, and Inagna Island); and probably Porto Rico. South to probably Porto Rico; probably Jamaica (Great Salt Pond and Port Henderson); probably Cuba (Trinidad); and British Honduras (Grassy Cay). West to British Honduras (Grassy Cay) ; Gulf of California; and probably Lower California (La Paz).
The status of the species in the southern part of its summer range has not yet been definitely settled, and some alleged races have been described, whose breeding ranges are undoubtedly included in the summary given above.
Winter range: The species has been detected in winter north t~ Lower California (San Jose Island); Sonora (Guaymas); Texas (probably rarely Brownsville and Matagorda County) ; probably Louisiana (Vermillion Bay); Mississippi (Hancock County); and Florida (mouth of the St. Johns River). East to Florida (mouth of the St. Johns River, St. Augustine, New Smyrna, and Key West); the Bahama Islands (Andros Islands and Watling Island); probably Santo Domingo (Samana); probably Porto Rico (Culebra Island and Vieques Island) ; the Lesser Antilles (Anegada); French Guiana (Cayenne and Rio Oyapok); and Brazil (Cajetuba, Bahia, and Camamu). South to Brazil (Camamu); and Peru (Tumbez). West to Peru (Tumbez); Ecuador (Puna Island); Colombia (Cartagena and Sabanilla) ; Honduras (Swan Islands) ; Guatemala (Chiapam) and Lower California (La Paz and San Jose Island).
Spring Migration: Early dates of spring arrival are Georgia, Cumberland, March 18, and Darien, March 19; South Carolina, Bulls Point, March 10, Frogmore, March 20, and Mount Pleasant, March ’20; North Carolina, Fort Macon, April 15, and Pea and Bodie Islands, April 24; and Virginia, Toms Brook, April 8.
Fall migration: Almost nothing is known about the fall migration of this plover but Wayne (1910) says that it remains on the beaches of South Carolina “until September 22, or perhaps until October.”
Casual records: Wilson plovers have been noted or collected on several occasions outside of their normal range. Most of these have naturally been in New York and on the coast of New England. Among them are: New York, three at Far Rockaway, May 17, 1879, one at Shinnecock Bay, May 16, 1884, one at Good Ground, May 28, 1879, Orient, July 3, 1915, and Long Beach, July 1, 1872; Connecticut, taken once at Stratford, and seen at Bridgeport on July 28, 1888; Massachusetts, Gurnet Point, August 22, 1877, one at Ipswich, May 8, 1904, and about 25 reported as seen at Dennis, September 4, 1920; Nova Scotia, one at Brier Island, April 28, 1880; and one from Halifax that is preserved in the British Museum; and California, one taken at Pacific Beach, June 27, 1894, and another seen at Imperial Beach, May 11, 1918.
Egg dates: Virginia: 22 records, May 4 to June 20; 11 records, May 27 to June 6. South Carolina and Georgia: 50 records, April 14 to June 21; 25 records, May 17 to June 10. Florida: 26 records, April 2 to July 10; 13 records, May 12 to June 11. Texas: 11 records, April 7 to June 18; 6 records, April 20 to May 19.