Our coastal beach is alive with shorebirds these days! One of the largest birds among those smaller than the “big boys” like the marbled godwit is the black-bellied plover, which is often considered the sentinel of the beach. This bird is quick to give an alarm call if it senses that danger or an unwanted guest is approaching. While it often travels alone, it also mixes with flocks of other species of shorebirds such as sanderling, dunlin and long-billed dowitchers. They will all raise their wings in flight if the sentinel sounds the alarm.
The black-bellied is the largest plover in North America. It is just under a foot in size and chunky. The male is spectacular in his black and white breeding plumage. Its black belly contrasts with its white under-wing. It has a white rump and tail in all plumages, and to boot it has black armpits. Both the male and the female can generally be described as having a short neck, short legs, a short bill and a large rounded head for its size. The female is more drab in color because her favorite garb is a fine, grayish mottled dress.
An interesting feature of the black-bellied plover is that it is the only American plover to have a hind toe. However, the toe is too tiny to be seen in the field. An excellent photograph may reveal its existence.
Black-bellied plovers nest in the dry tundra of the Arctic. They create a scrape in the ground, which they line with pebbles, lichens, twigs or leaves in which to lay anywhere from one to five eggs. Black-bellied plovers spend the winter on coastal beaches or in estuaries, but they are often seen in wet fields or pastures and on farmland. While they are not a nesting species on the Peninsula or in the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge, at least as far as we know now, they are often seen in summer. They are considered common on the refuge and environs during our other three seasons.
Generally, when we see them here on the Peninsula or on the refuge in the spring, they are foraging for invertebrates as they prepare to move north to their breeding area. Black-bellied plover might be seen struggling to pull a long, thin worm out of the sand. It is one of their favorite treats! They will also feast on crustaceans and clams.
A plover’s movement is different from that of other shorebirds. The black-bellied plover, like other plovers, does a stop-run-stop, or a stop-run-peck movement. Each time it stops it captures a tasty morsel.
Because it is the sentinel of the beach, the black-bellied plover was not hunted to the same extent as other shorebirds. It managed to avoid being hunted and remain common as a species over the years due to its sensitivity to danger, while other species similar in size were nearly wiped out, according to the Cornell Ornithological Lab.
This is a great time to take a walk on the beach. Shorebirds abound as they feed in preparation for their flight northward. Approach mixed flocks of shorebirds with care in case the sentinel is with the flock. If so, it may see you and sound the alarm, then the shorebirds will all be off in flash!