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Semipalmated Plover Life History



Semipalmated Plovers nest on pebbles, gravel, peat, tundra heath, or sand in subarctic and arctic environments. Often such sites are near ponds, rivers, or estuaries, and usually vegetation is very low and sparse, if not absent entirely. Beach grass, willow, birch, and sedges, along with many lichens and mosses are often present near the nest. During the nesting season, these plovers typically feed in nearby mudflats or riverbanks. During migration and the nonbreeding season, Semipalmated Plovers forage on mudflats and muddy margins of many kinds (in freshwater, brackish, and saltwater environments). They also feed in agricultural fields both wet and dry, on sandy beaches, and sometimes on stony beaches. Anywhere that small shorebirds might turn up on migration—golf courses, sod farms, sewage ponds, sports fields—Semipalmated Plovers are apt to be. During high tides, and at night, they roost in upper parts of beaches and high hummocks in marshes.

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Aquatic invertebrates

Semipalmated Plovers eat mostly small invertebrate prey. They forage in quick running dashes followed by pauses to look and listen for signs of prey. They grab prey from the surface to pull worms from their burrows with a tug. On beaches and in agricultural fields, they eat spiders, fly larvae, beetles, eggs of horseshoe crabs, earthworms, and plant seeds.

In wetlands, they rarely wade into water more than an inch deep—or above their tarsus (the lower part of the leg). In saltwater environments, their prey include marine worms, snails and slugs (gastropods), clams and other bivalves (mollusks), crabs and shrimp (decapods), plus many other tiny crustaceans called ostracods, copepods, isopods, and amphipods. In submerged muddy substrates, the birds often use their feet to stir the sediment, which causes prey items to flush. Semipalmated Plovers have large eyes that help them forage at night, especially nights with some moonlight.

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Nest Placement


Males lead females to potential nesting scrapes or make new ones as females look on. The female selects the nest site by sitting in the scrape and calling. Nests are made directly on dry gravel, pebbles, sand, or very short tundra vegetation, often near a wetland or wet area for feeding.

Nest Description

Nest is a shallow scrape in the substrate, lined with nearby materials. Males make the scrape using their feet and bodies, then line it with plant matter such as leaves, shells, rocks, grass, moss, seaweed, and other debris such as glass or charcoal. Nest scrapes measure about 3.6 inches across and up to 1.2 inches deep at the center.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:2-5 eggs
Number of Broods:1 brood
Egg Length:1.3-1.3 in (3.24-3.31 cm)
Egg Width:0.9-0.9 in (2.28-2.41 cm)
Incubation Period:23-25 days
Egg Description:

Light brown to pale olive buff, blotched with black, dark brown, sepia, and gray.

Condition at Hatching:

Covered in buff, black, and white down; dry within an hour.

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Ground Forager

Males arrive in breeding areas a few days ahead of females and display in flight over territories. This flight display consists of slow wingbeats (often called “butterfly flight”) usually more than 150 feet high in the air, giving a constant chu-weep call. When a female appears, the male chases her on the ground, fanning and cocking the tail, lowering the head, and giving a sputtering call.

Males guard females as soon as they've paired and selected a nest site. Most territories are small, between 0.05 and 1.5 acres. The species appears to be largely monogamous. Some pairs stay partnered in consecutive breeding seasons; others repartner if the first nesting attempt in a season fails.

Both parents share incubation and chick-care duties. Males defend their territories and regularly chase out males that intrude. Males also guard and defend chicks, with threat displays that resemble courtship posture or, when larger predators appear, broken-wing displays similar to those of Killdeer, with which they attempt to draw the predator away. Migrating Semipalmateds are also sometimes territorial, chasing others of their species (and of other shorebird species) away from prime foraging sites.

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Low Concern

Semipalmated Plover is among the few shorebirds whose populations appear to be stable. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 200,000 individuals (all in Alaska and Canada). They rate the Semipalmated Plover an 11 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of low conservation concern. Despite the current stability of the population, there are causes for concern: hundreds or thousands are killed by hunters in South America each year. Oil spills and other forms of pollution pose risks such as poisoning or fouling of plumage. Sea level rise and climate change are having major impacts on their arctic breeding habitat.

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Andres, B. A., P. A. Smith, R. I. G. Morrison, C. L. Gratto-Trevor, S. C. Brown, and C. A. Friis (2012). Population estimates of North American shorebirds, 2012. Wader Study Group Bulletin 119:178–194.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.

Nol, Erica and Michele S. Blanken. (2014). Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Partners in Flight. (2020). Avian Conservation Assessment Database, version 2020.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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Learn more at Birds of the World