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Pluvialis squatarola - Black-bellied Plover

Black-bellied Plover image

Geographic range:

World-wide but nests in the Arctic

Key features:

Black axilla, white wing stripe and rump in flight; male has a broad black neck, throat and belly in breeding plumage

Similar species:

Pluvialis fulva -- Pacific Golden Plover
Pluvialis dominica -- American Golden Plover


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

Primary common name:

Black-bellied Plover

General grouping:

Seabirds and shorebirds

ITIS code:


Geographic Range

Range Description:

The Black-bellied Plover is a long-distance, wide-ranging migrant shorebird with a nearly worldwide coastal distribution. It can be found on six different continents during the winter, but breeds only on Arctic tundra. Most migrate southward along coastlines, but a few move through the interior where they may stop to forage in bare agricultural fields.

The Black-bellied Plover breeds from western Alaska through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, and winters from British Columbia, south to Mexico and along the Atlantic Coast from Massachusetts south to Central America, Bermuda, the Caribbean, and southern South America and also the Gulf coast. During the winter Black-bellied Plovers are commonly found on coastal beaches and estuaries and are equally at home in temperate and tropical climates.


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


Relative abundance:


Species Description

General description:

The Black-bellied Plover is the largest of all the plovers. It has a sturdy body and large, round head and relatively short neck. The bill is short (25-35 mm) and thick, tapering evenly to a blunt point. The wings are pointed and the tail slightly rounded. Legs are gray-black and relatively short. Feet are the same color with short toes that are webbed between the base of the outer and middle toes, with smaller webbing between middle and inner toes. It also has a unique short hind toe but it is so small that it is hardly ever visualized from a distance.

The breeding plumage of male Black-bellied Plovers is stunning, with the upperparts a mottling of white and black while the underside is solid black from the upper edge of the eye and base of bill all the way down to the belly—hence the name. The male’s tail has more contrast than the female. The female is more subdued, with upperparts light and dark browns, and underparts black intermixed with white. This sexual dimorphism is unusual in shorebirds.

Non-breeding plumage and that of juveniles is much duller, mostly gray-brown above, with gray-brown breast and white belly. It has a white rump in all plumages. In flight broad white wing-stripes and white tail are also visible. It has a relatively large black eye, good for nocturnal feeding. Unique to the Black-bellied Plover is a black axilla (the hollow underneath the wing where it joins the body) conspicuous against the white of the underwing and belly, catching your eye as it flies.

The Black-bellied plover is very shy and startles easily. It flies away at the slightest disturbance or threat, usually circling and returning to rest or continue feeding. It is quick to give alarm calls, and thus functions worldwide as a sentinel for mixed assemblages of shorebirds. Its flight call is a series of high, clear whistles of three notes, described as melancholy and gently slurred: PLEEooee or peeooEEE. Flight display song is a melodious, ringing kudiloo or trillii repeated.

Distinctive features:

A sturdy, gray and black shore bird, with black axilla, white rump, and white wing stripe seen in flight, and a broad black neck, throat and belly when the male is in breeding plumage.


Length: 11-11.4 in (28-29 cm)
Wingspan: 23.2-23.6 in (59-60 cm)
Weight: 5.6-9.8 oz (160-277 g)

Natural History

General natural history:

Black-bellied Plovers breed in the high Arctic and winters the farthest north of any plover, but is found in temperate and tropical climates throughout the rest of the year. On its wintering grounds it roosts in dense flocks but will forage in small groups or singly on coasts with sandy and muddy flats as the tide recedes. They also forage in freshwater and upland habitats. They breed in relatively dry Arctic tundra that has lichens, herbs, and low shrubs. Males defend their large nesting territories against conspecifics and Golden Plovers. Both parents incubate the eggs in the nest, a shallow scrape lined with lichens, and both also care for the young. The young are able to forage within 12 hours of hatching, but usually stay at the nest longer than other shorebirds. One brood per season is the norm.

Their migration is considered to be long-distance and their flight is rapid. It is estimated that these birds may have a lifespan of more than 20 years in the wild.


In general, predation on adults and nests seems to be low. Little is known about survival during their first year of life. Arctic foxes are responsible for destroying Black-bellied Plover nests. Raptors also prey on Black-bellied Plovers at their breeding territories. Disturbance by humans also disrupts their reproductive season.


The Black-bellied Plover is a ground forager, feeding on insects on breeding grounds in the summer and invertebrates, primarily polychaetes (especially slender worms), bivalves, mollusks, crustaceans, and some seeds and berries during migration and on wintering grounds. They take relatively large prey items, such as earthworms, grasshoppers, larval moths, and both adult and larval beetles. On the central California coast they consume small (1 cm) sea anemones when feeding near rocks.

Feeding behavior


Feeding behavior notes:

The Black-bellied Plover forages at low tides, finding most prey items by sight, running along the ground and pausing periodically to peck at edible bits. In winter, they commonly feed with Dunlin. They will also probe for hidden prey. They have been seen standing in shallow water, close to where a prey item has been taken, vigorously shaking the prey to dislodge mud or sand. Night feeding is common and may equal daytime feeding.

April - June


Northward movement begins in California as early as April for adult Black-bellied Plovers, peaking the last week of April. The immatures leave later. Their route is primarily coastal, but they will migrate over a broad front. Flights are long, over land or water, with shorter hops along coastlines. The migratory routes are much the same as their fall migrations. They migrate at night usually, in small flocks from a few to over 100, flying in V-formation at high altitudes (>1,000 m). They often vocalize upon departure and landing. They often migrate in mixed flocks of American and Pacific Golden Plovers. The long-distance migrations of this species are facilitated by its rapid flight speed. They begin arriving in Alaska mid-May and continue to arrive as late as early June at high latitudes.

May - August


The Black-bellied Plover breeds in relatively dry tundra with abundant lichens, herbs, and low shrubs. They do not breed before their second or third year. Aerial displays and vocalizations by males mark their large nesting territories, defended against golden-plovers as well as conspecifics. Males perform a “butterfly” courtship display to attract females. They often nest within 300 feet of the previous year’s nest. The male builds a shallow scrape in the ground for a nest that the female then lines with lichen, moss, leaves, twigs, or pebbles. One to five eggs are laid that are pinkish, greenish, or brownish in color with distinct dark spots at the large end. The eggs are relatively large, 5 cm (2 in) long. Both parents have two large incubation patches on either side of lower breast and belly, and incubate the clutch for 26-27 days with the male incubating during the day and the female at night.

The interval between hatching of the first and last egg laid is sometimes as much as 36 hours. Chicks are covered with down, precocial at birth, and begin to feed themselves within one day after hatching. Both parents tend the chick for the first 14 days, and then the female deserts the chicks at about day 12 leaving the male to provide care until the chicks fledge about 23-35 days after hatching. Adult birds perform “distraction displays” (for instance, faking broken wings) to distract predators from their nest or chicks. If flushed from the nest they will usually return to it. The breeding cycle lasts about 55 days from first egg to fledging. Most young are fledged by the end of August.

July - November


Southbound movement can be seen as late as November. Flocks begin to assemble in mid-July in Alaska, with juveniles departing breeding grounds in August and September. The migration may last through October and into November for plovers using the interior from the Pacific Northwest. Large numbers arrive in central California the last week of July. The migratory routes are much the same as their spring migrations. They migrate at night usually, in small flocks from a few to over 100, flying in V-formation at high altitudes (>1,000 m). They often vocalize upon departure and landing.

September - March


On wintering grounds, which includes coastal beaches and estuaries, the Black-bellied Plover roosts in dense flocks but spreads out over sandy and muddy flats or rocky areas to forage as the tide recedes, and is usually seen alone when foraging. Although generally a coastal bird, it also forages successfully in freshwater and upland habitats. They are known to use flooded pastures and agricultural land near the sea, especially at high tide and during heavy rains. Individuals may defend permanent winter territories or roam widely. Polychaetes and small bivalves are favorite foods of this species, but its diet is varied. Their large eyes are adapted to nocturnal foraging, which is common.

Listing Status:

IUCN: Least Concern

Their arctic breeding habitat is at low risk of human occupation and development. Christmas Bird Counts indicate that regional wintering populations are increasing. They are protected under the Migratory Bird Act and the Agreement on Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds. Non-breeding habitat is lost when coastal tidal flats are filled and dredged for reclamation purposes. The effect of these activities has not been analyzed.
Click on an image below to view a larger version in the SIMoN Photo Library. You will also be able to view important information on each photo such as photographer, date, caption and more.
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NOAA. 1994. Beached marine birds and mammals of the North American West Coast: a revised guide to their identification. NOAA Sanctuaries and Reserves Division, U.S. Department of Commerce
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Aquarium of the Pacific

Cornell Lab of Ornithology
All About Birds

New Hampshire Public Television
South Dakota Birds and Birding