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Charadrius semipalmatus - Semipalmated Plover

Semipalmated Plover image

Geographic range:

North and South America

Key features:

Small, brown uppers and white belly, a very short yellow and bill that is black at the tips, and a single black breast band, forming a complete collar.

Similar species:

Charadrius alexandrinus -- Snowy Plover
Charadrius vociferus -- Killdeer


bay (sandy shore), estuary, exposed sandy beaches, protected sandy beaches

Primary common name:

Semipalmated Plover

General grouping:

Seabirds and shorebirds

ITIS code:


Geographic Range

Range Description:

The Semipalmated Plover breeds in the Arctic and winters along the Pacific and south Atlantic coasts of North and South America. It is a common migratory bird in spring and fall throughout the US and southern Canada.

During fall migration Semipalmated Plovers are most often seen on the mudflats of Elkhorn Slough and the estuaries of the Pajaro and Salinas Rivers, but also along the sandy beaches of MBNMS. Spring migration is much the same.

They breed from Alaska to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. They migrate in winter along the Pacific Coast from n. California to Baja California, with smaller numbers wintering at the Salton Sea and as far north as Oregon and Washington and rarely British Columbia. Along the Atlantic Coast they winter from s. Virginia to s. Florida and along the Gulf Coast west to s. Texas. New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, and Nova Scotia may also have a few rare wintering Semipalmated Plovers. The West Indies, Bermuda, the Pacific Coasts of Mexico and Central America, and many states of South America also host these wintering birds.


bay (sandy shore), estuary, exposed sandy beaches, protected sandy beaches


Relative abundance:

In MBNMS the Semipalmated Plover is fairly common during the spring and fall as it migrates along the coast. It is uncommon in winter and very rare in summer.

Species Description

General description:

Semipalmated (with feet or toes that are partially webbed) Plovers are small shorebirds. They have gray-brown upperparts and white underparts. The forehead and faint eyebrows are white, with the face and collar, which extends around the neck, black in breeding plumage and brown in non-breeding adults and juveniles. The size and shape of this collar changes it shape depending on the posture of the bird: if upright the collar at the breast appears wide. If hunched down it is narrow.

The bill is stubby (13mm) and orange with a black tip. Juveniles and winter-plumaged birds have an all black bill. The rather short legs and partly webbed feet are distinctive: orange to yellow. The eye is dark with a white eye brow except in breeding plumage when the eyebrow almost completely disappears. There is bare yellow to orange skin around the eye, producing a narrow eye-ring.

In flight, a narrow white stripe is visible on the dark, relatively long, slender wing (upper side). The under side is light. The tail is brown with thin white edges. It has a strong, direct flight on rapidly beating tapered wings. The sexes are similar but males have a greater amount of black on sides of head and forecrown. In winter the adults are more pale with distinct white eyebrows. Juveniles are like the winter adults but the legs and feet are yellow. Their call is a whistled, up-slurred chu-weet. Their song is the same sound but in a series. They generally occur in smaller and more dispersed flocks than do other shorebirds

Distinctive features:

A small shorebird with a dark brown back and white belly, a single black band around its neck, a short yellow and black bill, and a dark tail tip in flight, the Semipalmated Plover is relatively long winged and large headed, the most common plover seen on migration in most of North America.


Length: 6.6-7.4 in (17-19 cm)
Wingspan: 10.5-11.7 in(27-30 cm)
Weight: 0.8-1.7 oz (22-48 g)

Natural History

General natural history:

Semipalmated Plovers are small plovers, resembling a Killdeer, but smaller and with only one neck band. The term "semipalmated" refers to its partly webbed feet. They are found on beaches and mudflats during migration, which is continent-wide, from the US to Patagonia. It breeds in the arctic and subarctic, nesting on open ground in the sun and alee. They forage for food on beaches, tidal flats and fields, usually by sight and often stirring the sand with their foot. They eat insects, crustaceans and worms. They roost in small groups. Males court females with a “butterfly flight” of slow wing beats and sharp liquid whistles. They generally raise 3 to 4 chicks that are precocial and fledge in about 30 days. For more detail click on the Seasonal Behavior – Reproduction tab above.


Common Ravens (Corvus corax), Rough-legged Hawks (Buteo lagopus), Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus), and Arctic (Alopex lagopus) and red (Vulpes vulpes) foxes are known to take eggs and young of the Semipalmated Plover


Semipalmated Plovers eat small worms, insects (like grasshoppers, mosquitoes, and locusts), crustaceans, and mollusks. Specifically they eat benthic invertebrates in fresh and salt water—e.g., fly (Diptera) larvae, polychaete worms, amphipods, isopods, decapods, bivalves and gastropods, copepods, and larvae of long-legged flies (Dolichopodidae) and beach flies (Canacidae). Species and families taken in Suriname: Anachus sp., Melampus coffeus, Odostomia leavigata, and Turbonilla sp. (snails [Gastropoda]); Ochtebius sp. (beetles [Coleoptera]); larvae of soldier flies (Stratiomyidae) and shore flies (Ephydridae). Terrestrial invertebrates commonly eaten are flies, beetles, and spiders (Araneida).

Feeding behavior


Feeding behavior notes:

Semipalmated Plovers search for prey visually, running several steps with their head held high, stopping, staring, and then pecking or quickly snatching at prey. They also use a technique called “foot-trembling” which includes digging with brief backwards and sideways kicks, sending sand flying all around. When a shallow hole has been dug pecking on the surface of the hole begins. They may feed alone or in small groups.

They have been seen swimming short distances across small water channels during foraging while on migration. Chicks also swim short distances to follow parents to small islets on shallow lakes. They will feed both diurnally and nocturnally.

March - June


Semipalmated Plovers migrate over a broad front throughout the Americas, concentrating at coastal sites. Some yearlings remain on their wintering grounds throughout their second year. Males precede females northward. They migrate diurnally and nocturnally, flying and roosting separately from tight flocks of sandpipers in the Pacific Northwest, although they associate with Sanderlings and Black-bellied Plovers, often sharing the same habitat. The maximum length of migration one-way is 9,315 mi (15,000 km) with a maximum non-stop migration distance of 2,795 mi (4,500 km), usually flown at an altitude of 1,640 – 3,280 ft (500-1,000m). In North America, highest concentrations occur along Atlantic and Pacific coasts, but substantial migration occurs throughout the interior of North America during both northward and southward migrations. During migration in Virginia they have been seen foraging in freshly plowed or sparsely vegetated agricultural fields when tidal flats are covered by high tide, impoundments where water is less than 3 cm, and damp mudflats with little or no vegetation.

June - August


Semipalmated Plovers males usually arrive on their breeding grounds in early June. Males set up their territories within 5 to 10 days after arrival when the females arrive, making new scrapes or using preexisting scrapes. Females sit in the scrapes during courtship while the males fly over the scrape in a "Butterfly Flight", with slow, deliberate wing-beats, neck outstretched, and vocalizing. They will then descend groundward turning at the last moment to begin the display again. When it appears that the female has chosen a scrape the male will chase the female with his tail cocked and fanned, making chuttering sounds. Then the male will sit in the scrape with the female and they will scrape, peck, and chutter. Before copulation the male will "goose step" on the female's back and she will raise her tail. After copulation both will peck at the ground or preen. In sandy areas the nest is lined with shell fragments and pebbles; on tundra, it is lined with plants. It is usually in an area sheltered from the wind but in full sun. The pair bond remains intact unless there is a failure to raise chicks. Females lay 3-4 1.3 in (33mm) brown/olive buff eggs that are marked with dark brown and black. Both parents incubate the eggs for 24-25 days. Upon hatching the well camouflaged chicks are pale buffy grey, finely mottled with dusky cinnamon above. The underparts are white with a blackish bordering band and buffy streaks on side and back. They have a narrow dark breast band, white forehead, and a wide white collar around the neck. They are precocial and leave the nest soon and can find their own food, although both parents also feed them. They will begin to fly in16 to 19 days and fledge 22-31 days after hatching. They will usually breed in their second or third year.

November - March


The Semipalmated Plover winters along the Pacific Coast from n. California south to Baja California, Mexico, Central America, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and the Galapagos; with small numbers wintering locally north to Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. Small numbers also winter at the Salton Sea, CA. Along the Atlantic Coast they winter from s. Virginia to Florida and the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas. Irregularly they winter along the coasts of New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts. They also winter at coastal sites throughout the West Indies and Bermuda. In South America they winter along Atlantic coasts from Columbia, Venezuela, Suriname, Guyana, Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina. Information about feeding habits while on their wintering grounds is sparse. In Venezuela fecal studies revealed that larvae of long-legged flies, larvae of beach flies, bivalve mollusks, and copepod crustaceans were eaten.

July - November


Females precede males southward. Fall migration is more protracted than their northward movement in spring, in part because juveniles migrate later than adults. Along the Pacific Coast migration occurs from July through late August to early September in Alaska and through October in British Columbia. MBNMS numbers of adults peak in July and August, while juveniles are seen most from August to early November. Their fall migration is widespread over a broad front throughout the Americas. There appears to be little aggression at migratory stopovers that are shared with multiple species. In areas where the birds are concentrated they may chase each other but rarely fight. It is thought that they follow the same migratory route annually. Substantial migration occurs throughout the interior of North America during both northward and southward migrations. Semipalmated Sandpipers from eastern populations probably undertake nonstop transoceanic flights of 1,900 - 2,500 mi (3,000 - 4,000 km) from New England and southern Canada to South America, powered by extensive fat reserves.

Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary:

Semipalmated Plovers have a large range, estimated to be close to 5,000,000 square kilometers. The global population is estimated to be 150,000 and does not show signs of decline. However the health of all shorebirds is a matter of concern due to human disturbance, hunting in wintering areas, habitat alteration or loss, chemical pollution, and climate change.

Listing Status:

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern
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