Friday, 19 March 2010

Know your plovers

I have long know that it's actually when things don't go according to plan that one learns the most. I find that this rule applies to many walks of life and in fact I once came across the definition of an expert as being someone who's made all the mistakes that there are to make in a given field. Well, I was pretty sure that I knew how to tell the difference between a ringed and a little ringed plover and yet there was still something to learn on this subject. Many of you may be wondering why this should be much of an issue but for me, with my patch being Port Meadow, I get both types of plover turning up all the time and I often find them when I'm out on my run so I only have my bins with me. My usual tactic is to employ a bit of field craft and to get close enough (usually by crawling through the mud) so that I can see the yellow of the eye ring or not as the case may be. However I've long felt that some of the features that are visible from more of a distance ought to be usable to identify them from further away even without a scope and recently I had an opportunity to learn more about what one can and cannot rely on.

The other day I got a call to say that little ringed plover had been found on the Meadow that morning, the first of the year for the county. As I was about to head out there on my run anyway I decided to take my point & shoot camera with me to see if I could get some sort of shot and off I set. I soon came across the bird though it was to the North of the Meadow floods and so needed to be approached from the Wolvercote end of the floods, not that this was a problem as my traditional running circuit passes back that way anyway. Unfortunately it was rather awkwardly located in some quite boggy parts of the floods so I wasn't able to get as close to it as I normally am able. I gave it a grilling through my bins but couldn't get a clear view of the eye ring. I took a photo below and considered it further at home.
The plover in question

At home I consulted my Collins paying particular attention to the broadness of the bulge in the breast band and also the relative smoothness of the bulge in the eye mask beneath the eye. According to the guide it appeared that a little ringed plover should have a rather pointy eye mask bulge and a thin breast band. That coupled with the lack of the yellow eye ring had me wondering whether it wasn't in fact actually a ringed plover. Despite the dark bill, this feature can be present on winter plumaged and juvenile ringed plovers. Given that the original finder who'd had a scope and who was a very experienced and very sharp birder, I thought that I would seek a second opinion and duly sent the photo off to Ian Lewington. His response was that it was a little ringed plover for the following reasons:

1. The overall jizz and daintiness of the bird
2. The breast band and eye mask bulginess are not reliable features apparently. The look of the breast can depend on how the bird is standing and the eye mask is a useful supporting feature but is not diagnostic.
3. The side of the bird that we're looking at is in deep shadow on a very bright day, hence the difficulty in seeing the eye ring
4. The white under tail coverts wrap around a bit at the back which is a useful little ringed plover diagnostic.
5. The white on the crown between the black forehead band and the brown cap is diagnostic

He even sent me the following photo which clearly illustrates how unreliable the breast band and eye mask bulges are.

An LRP with bulging breast band and smooth eye mask (c) Ian Lewington

So yet another bird identification error for me but an educational one. Funnily enough having seen quite a few more little ringed plovers on the Meadow over the last few days now I think that I may well have got a sense of their jizz now anyway and in fact when I now look at the original photo it immediately looks like a little ringed plover! It's always interesting to learn about what ID features one can actually rely upon, something that even the best guide books don't seem to tell you and the wrap-around tail coverts is a very interesting pointer which I'd certainly not come across before.

Here's a videograb I took which clearly shows the wrap-around under tail coverts.

Another few ticks to add to the year list tallies. It's all kicking off on Port Meadow at present and I am down there twice a day to see what's about.

Oxon Year List 2010
099 ringed plover 15/03/2010 Port Meadow
100 little ringed plover 16/03/2010 Port Meadow
101 swallow 18/03/2010 Port Meadow
102 sand martin 18/03/2010 Port Meadow

National Year List 2010
118 little ringed plover 16/03/2010 Port Meadow
119 swallow 18/03/2010 Port Meadow
120 sand martin 18/03/2010 Port Meadow

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