Quiz #11: Answer

To refresh your memory, here again are the photos for Bird Quiz #11.

As I mentioned last week, the top photo was taken in Puerto Rico in May. The bottom photo was taken in California in February.

What can we tell from the photos? It’s clear that both birds are hanging out on sand, perhaps at the ocean (and both California and Puerto Rico have plenty of shoreline).  Also, both birds are very similar in appearance. Their sandpiper-ish shape, small size, and sandy habitat all send us to the field guide section on shorebirds.

Most sandpipers have long, thin bills, perfect for probing into the mud for dinner. These birds have relatively short, thick bills. That, plus their short, squat outline tells us they are Charadrius plovers—some of my favorite birds.

Now things get tricky. Which plover(s) are they?

I notice two features about the top bird—its lovely, though muddy, dull pink legs, and its thick, black bill. Of the four likely candidate (Piping, Semipalmated, Snowy, and Wilson’s), both Piping and Semipalmated Plovers have yellow legs and yellow on their bills (at least during the breeding season). That leaves Snowy and Wilson’s. Only one has truly pink legs—the Wilson’s Plover. Snowy Plovers also have fairly dull, slightly pinkish legs, but look at their bills. They are very thin, while this bird has a large, thick bill. Finally, Wilson’s Plovers are commonly found in Puerto Rico. I feel confident naming this a Wilson’s Plover. You can see another view at left.

The bottom photo was taken in February, the time of year that plovers begin to molt back into their breeding plumage. Unfortunately, this one is still wearing its plain duds. Plus, we can’t see its legs and feet, so we don’t know what color they are. That leaves the beak, and what tan markings we can see from this angle.

I’d like to point out that being present when I took the photo wouldn’t have helped at all. It was cold and windy, and the birds were all doing their best imitations of beach cobblestones. In fact, we’d been there over 20 minutes before I realized there were any birds around!

The bill on this bird is black, and is much thinner than that of the Wilson’s Plover above. They are not the same species. However, the bill is black, not yellow. It can’t be a juvenile, because it’s the wrong time of year. That narrows it down to one option—Snowy Plover. To be certain, let’s see if the other characteristics match.

Checking the field guide, Snowy Plovers are found along the central California coast in February (we were just north of Santa Cruz). The markings also confirm my ID. The tan neck is white in front, the overall color is light, but not extremely so, and the bird is very, very round. Yes, it was fluffed against the cold, but it’s still remarkably round, hence my initial impression that it was a rock.

I think their resemblance to rocks is what makes Plovers so endearing. I’m reminded of the clams in the comic strip B.C.—round objects on thin legs. Then, when the rock I was looking at blinked at me, I was completely smitten. What’s your favorite bird?

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