The plover family includes at least two dozen species around the world that are small with a single black ring, partial or complete, from the sides of the neck across the chest. Most have brown backs — the color of wet mud — but a few are much paler, the color of dry sand. North America has two species of small, pale-backed plovers of this group. The Piping Plover gets the most attention because it’s an endangered species found close to major centers of human population. The Snowy Plover, a more widespread bird, is more often ignored.
Indeed, the Snowy Plover is easy to overlook. It’s the smallest plover in North America (half the bulk of an American Robin) and one of the plainest. Adult males in breeding plumage show a black bar across the forehead, dusky cheeks, and a black mark at each side of the neck; these marks are less distinct on adult females and lacking on juveniles and winter birds. Snowy Plovers are also inconspicuous because they tend to stand motionless, or to move slowly and hesitantly, when humans are nearby. Their pale, drab color blends well with their usual surroundings. Their callnotes are mostly soft, and the birds often remain silent.
Listen to the sounds of Snowy Plover
It’s intriguing to compare the breeding distributions of Snowy Plover and Piping Plover. Both nest on sandy beaches along the coast and in certain open situations in the interior, such as salt flats around saline lakes, river sandbars, and lake beaches. But there’s very little overlap between them. Snowy Plovers nest along the Pacific Coast from Washington state to Baja and along the Gulf Coast from Texas to western Florida. Piping Plovers breed along the Atlantic Coast from eastern Canada south to the Carolinas. In the interior, Snowy Plovers are widespread around salt lakes in the West and on the southern Great Plains, while Piping Plovers nest around the Great Lakes and on the northern Great Plains. Both species occur in the breeding season at certain places in eastern Colorado, but elsewhere it almost appears that they exclude each other. The best region to compare the two is along the Gulf Coast in winter, where both are regularly seen on the same beaches.
At any time of year, the best distinctions between Snowy and Piping Plovers involve the bill and legs, not aspects of plumage. The Snowy Plover’s bill is straight, slender, and fairly short. The Piping Plover’s bill is shorter and noticeably thicker, a very different overall shape. The Snowy’s bill is always black, but Piping has the basal half of the bill orange in breeding season and often retains some orange at the base in winter. Snowy Plover has slightly longer legs than Piping, varying from pinkish gray to dark gray, while Piping Plover’s legs are orange. Beware, though, that any shorebird can have its legs discolored by mud, so leg color isn’t always reliable.
What to look for
Size. The smallest North American plover, roughly sparrow-sized.
Overall color. Pale brownish gray on back, wings, and top of head, white underparts, narrow pale collar across hindneck.
Bill. Short, straight, and slender, and always solid black.
Legs. May appear to have thinner, slightly longer legs than other small plovers. Color varies from pale gray or pinkish gray to dark gray.
Breeding plumage. In spring and summer, males have a black bar across forehead, dusky cheeks, black mark at side of neck. Females average duller markings.
Snowy Plovers look drab like this for at least half the year, from early fall to early spring. The narrow pale edges on the feathers of the upperparts of this bird would indicate a juvenile if it had been photographed in summer; but by October, many adults will have molted into fresh winter plumage and can show similar pale edging, so aging such birds can be difficult. To identify them to species, focus on structure, especially bill shape. The very slender bill of Snowy Plover separates it from Piping and Semipalmated Plovers (and especially from the big-billed Wilson’s Plover). Snowy Plover often looks very thin-legged as well, and its legs vary from pinkish gray to dark gray.
Our other pale-backed plover, Piping Plover, overlaps with Snowy Plover mainly on the Gulf Coast in winter and the southern Great Plains in migration. Vagrants of either species can complicate the picture elsewhere. Bill shape is the best distinction: Piping Plover’s bill is both shorter and thicker, creating a different impression. Its bill is half orange in breeding season, and even in winter, many individuals show a touch of orange at the base, while the Snowy’s bill is always black. The orange legs of the Piping Plover are usually obvious. Piping is also slightly larger and more round-bodied, but Snowy can look just as rotund when it fluffs up its feathers.
Back color is a tricky field mark for small plovers. They can appear paler or darker, grayer or browner, depending on lighting. This Snowy Plover was photographed in low-angle light that makes it look more warmly colored, more brownish on the upperparts. Snowy Plovers along the Gulf Coast may average slightly paler than those farther west (at one time, they were regarded as a separate subspecies), but the difference is not apparent in the field. Semipalmated Plover, our most common small plover, looks distinctly darker than Snowy Plover in direct comparison, but on a lone bird in odd light, the difference may not be obvious, making other field marks (like bill shape and leg color) more important.
Not a bird of mountains, the Mountain Plover isn’t usually found at the water’s edge, either, but on dry, short-grass plains of the West. Snowy Plovers in the same region occur on open salt flats, often far from water. Their habitats don’t usually overlap, but it’s worthwhile comparing them. The Mountain Plover is a larger bird, but its very thin bill suggests that of Snowy Plover, and size can be difficult to judge on a lone bird. It’s also a warmer tan color on the upperparts, but lighting can affect our perceptions of color. If in doubt, look for pale brown washing forward across the front of the neck and the lack of a pale collar across the hindneck.
Classification and conservation
For many years, the bird we know as Snowy Plover in the Americas was considered the same species as the bird called Kentish Plover across Europe, Asia, and North Africa (named for the county Kent in England, where it once nested). This problem of separate names became an advantage in 2011, when these populations were formally split into two species, and no change of their English names was required.
Although the Western Hemisphere and Eastern Hemisphere forms look similar, they have different voices, and DNA analysis confirms their distinct status. They also give subtly different impressions in the field. For one thing, Kentish Plovers often seem more sociable or more common where they occur. Along the coast of China, I have seen loose flocks of dozens or even hundreds of Kentish Plovers. In North America, I seldom see concentrations of more than a few Snowy Plovers.
Snowy Plover is a less-numerous bird overall. Exact figures aren’t known, but the world population of Kentish Plover may be over 300,000. The population of Snowy Plover may be one-tenth of that number, or around 30,000 or less. The split of the two has brought a conservation issue into focus: No longer part of a common worldwide species, Snowy Plover is now classified as Near Threatened. Protection of coastal nesting sites, already underway in some places, will become ever more important in the future.
This article was first published in the July/August 2021 issue of BirdWatching magazine.