Identification guide 2
Lesser and Greater Sand Plovers
Passage Shorebird Challenge and Identification Guide states the following:
Lesser Sand Plover -
Common summer visitor. Small (19-21 cm), grey-brown above and white below. Large
eyes. Short black bill and dark grey legs, sometimes tinged greenish. In
breeding plumage has black and chestnut markings on head and breast. Mudflats
and sandy beaches.
Greater Sand Plover -
Common summer visitor. Medium (22-25 cm), grey-brown above and white below.
Large eyes. Very similar to Lesser Sand Plover but larger and paler, with larger
head, longer and thicker bill and longer legs (often paler). In breeding plumage
has black and chestnut markings on head and breast. Mudflats and sandy beaches.
perhaps overemphasise the actual size difference between the two species. The
average size of Lesser falls within the range for species considered to be "small",
whereas the average size of Greater falls within the range for species considered to be
"medium". Although Greater Sand Plovers are generally larger, the
difference is often so subtle that it's only of practical help when you have the
two species next to each other for direct comparison.
late Mike Rogers, when Secretary of the British Birds Rarities Committee, famously
observed: "The Lesser Sand Plover is quite a pleasing little bird.
The Greater strikes me as an ugly brute, with a body too small for its legs, a
head too large for its body and a bill too large for its head. Perhaps, like the
camel, the Greater Sand Plover was designed by a committee."
does, in fact, provide an
insight into some basic differences between the two species.
This photograph, taken by Neil Bowman in late
February, shows Greater
on the left and Lesser on the right. Note the larger bill and paler colour
of the Greater, together with the size difference.
may appear to be very similar species, with experience they can be readily
separated in the field. But beware, even the most experienced observer can be
defeated by the occasional individual.
There are a number of
features to consider when identifying Sand Plovers, the most important being
overall shape and size, plumage, shape and size of the bill, and length and colour
of the legs.
Shape and Size
Re-read the quote above made by Mike
Rogers. There's many a true word spoken in jest! Greater Sand Plovers have
larger bills, larger heads and longer legs than Lesser Sand Plovers, as can be
seen in the two photographs below.
Sand Plovers are generally larger than Lesser Sand Plovers but the difference is
Sand Plovers often have a more horizontal stance than the upright stance of Lesser Sand Plovers.
But be wary of the stance of an alert Greater compared to the stance of a
sheltering Lesser. Compare the more attenuated, slender body shape of
Greater with the more rotund Lesser.
The head of a Greater
Sand Plover is normally more angular than the rounded head of a Lesser Sand
Various plumages are encountered in
Australia at different times of the year.
Identification is easiest when birds
are in fresh breeding plumage, or moulting into that plumage, and this is in
evidence before they leave for the Northern Hemisphere between March and May.
The following two photographs of groups of Sand Plovers were taken during that
period, and at that time of year characteristics such as colour and width of the
breast band are most reliable.
Birds that arrive in August and
September from the Northern Hemisphere are mostly in varying
stages of post-breeding body moult. However, even at
these times, there will be several birds present in some kind of non-breeding plumage,
mostly being young birds that aren't old enough to colour up and migrate. Note
also that adult females present will not be as brightly coloured as males. When Lesser Sand Plovers return
in August and September, the chestnut of their breast has faded to
develop a more orange tinge, and the dark upper margin of the breast band has
usually faded away, so they look more similar to breeding plumage Greater
Between October and February, birds
in non-breeding plumage are all that are likely to be seen.
Adults will be in various stages of
pre-breeding moult between March and May, before their departure back to the
Northern Hemisphere, with fresh breeding plumage individuals also being seen
around that time. Note that adult females are generally not as brightly coloured as
photographs that follow show groups of Lesser Sand Plovers and Greater Sand
Plovers in various plumages. For both species, some individuals are in breeding plumage, some in non-breeding plumage,
and some in-between.
Tom Tarrant took
this photograph of Lesser Sand Plovers at Toorbul on April 7th 2002. Their plumages range
from non-breeding through to breeding.
this photograph of Greater Sand Plovers at Buckley's Hole on March 19th
2007. Their plumages
from non-breeding through to breeding.
In full breeding
plumage, the chestnut on the breast is far more extensive on Lesser Sand
Plovers than on Greater Sand Plovers.
The chestnut on
the breast of Lesser Sand Plovers is brighter and rustier than the
paler, more orange chestnut of Greater Sand Plovers.
Although it is
sometimes difficult to see the thin black necklace between the chestnut breast and
white throat of breeding plumage Lesser Sand Plovers, it is clear to see
that this necklace is not present in the photograph of the breeding plumage Greater Sand
Plovers. Only very rarely will a Greater display a black necklace.
plumage, Greater Sand
Plovers usually have a few orange-chestnut scapulars, whereas Lesser Sand
Plovers only exceptionally have any chestnut scapulars.
In the transition between
non-breeding and breeding plumages, Lesser Sand Plovers can show a
restricted amount of chestnut on the upper breast, which can be similar to
the breast pattern displayed by breeding plumage Greater Sand Plovers.
However, the colour is always different.
The upperparts of Lesser Sand Plovers are darker than the upperparts of Greater Sand
Plovers, noticeable in the photographs despite the effects caused by the
lighting. But beware that a first-year non-breeding Greater is darker than
an adult non-breeding Greater.
Plovers have cleaner white flanks than Lesser Sand Plovers.
In non-breeding plumage, Greater Sand
Plovers tend to have more contrasting upperparts. They aren't quite as
smoothly brown above as Lesser Sand Plovers, and their folded wing is more likely to
look a little paler than the rest of the upperparts.
In non-breeding plumage, the
ear-coverts and breast-band of Lesser Sand Plovers often appear a little more extensively dark.
photographs of bills and legs of Lesser and Greater Sand Plovers are extracted
from original photographs taken by Robert Inglis, Neil Bowman and Chris Barnes.
The shape and size of the
bill can vary between individuals of the same species. At least the bill colour is
Generally, one of
the more reliable ways of distinguishing between the Sand Plovers is the
length of the bill. If the length of the bill is the same or less than the
distance from the base of the bill to the rear of the eye, it is likely to
be a Lesser Sand Plover. If the length
of the bill is greater than the distance from the base of the bill to the
rear of the eye, it is likely to be a
Greater Sand Plover.
Greater Sand Plovers have more tapering and pointed bills
than Lesser Sand Plovers, whose shorter, blunter bills often look quite stubby.
Greater Sand Plovers normally have thicker,
especially thicker-based, bills
than Lesser Sand Plovers, although there may be exceptions. This can be a useful feature if the two species are close
together for comparison.
A Greater Sand
Plover's culmen bulges for half of its length, towards the tip, whereas a Lesser Sand
Plover's culmen bulges only for half of its length or less. It may be the
case that races of Lesser Sand Plover other than those in the 'mongolus' group
found in Australia have culmens that typically bulge for a distance closer
to just one-third of their length.
that may be useful is that, because Greater Sand Plovers have longer bills
than Lesser Sand Plovers, the upper and lower mandibles often appear to
remain parallel for longer along the bill from the head.
above of the Lesser Sand Plover in partial breeding plumage was taken in
late February. This is another time of year when Lesser Sand Plovers can look
somewhat similar to breeding plumage Greater
Many current field
guides suggest that the legs of Lesser Sand Plovers are dark whilst the legs of
Greater Sand Plovers are pale. This may be true for the majority of individuals
but see the variation in leg colour shown in the photographs below.
Leg colour ranges from
blackish to olive-greenish for Lesser Sand Plovers, and
greyish-green to yellowish for Greater Sand Plovers.
The legs of both species appear much darker in
However, a useful rule of thumb
is that Lesser Sand Plovers usually have dark grey legs and Greater Sand Plovers
usually have yellowish legs
The legs of both species appear considerably
shorter when their feet are immersed in water, mud or sand.
The legs of Greater Sand Plovers
are appreciably longer than those of Lesser Sand Plovers, especially
above the "knees" (tibias/thighs).
In flight, the legs of Greater
Sand Plovers trail behind the tip of the tail, whereas the legs of Lesser
Sand Plovers do not.
In flight, Greater Sand Plovers
show more white, both on the tip and on the sides of the tail, than Lesser
In flight, Lesser Sand Plovers
show a narrow white wing bar across the inner wing, which extends fairly
uniformly onto the inner primaries. Greater Sand Plovers show a less
prominent white wing bar across the inner wing, which broadens onto the
Keep in mind that the above
three tips are of limited value in the field as the differences outlined are
all very subtle.
When feeding, Lesser Sand
Plovers stop to pick for food more frequently than Greater Sand Plovers.
The calls of Lesser and Greater
Sand Plovers are rather over-simplified in many field guides as both species
have very similar trilling calls. Perhaps Lesser Sand Plovers have slightly
more staccato calls. And perhaps Greater Sand Plovers have lower pitched and
more trilled calls, and tend to repeat them in rapid succession. But it would
need considerable experience and familiarity to become confident enough to
distinguish between these species on call alone.
Posture - Greater Sand Plovers may seem to have a more
horizontal posture than Lesser Sand Plovers because their legs appear to be set around the middle
of the body, while in Lesser Sand Plovers the legs appear to be set a little further
back. Therefore a Lesser may need to raise its front end a bit to be evenly balanced.
Posture certainly varies a lot in both
species, depending on what the birds are doing, what the weather is like, and
perhaps even according to their mood. However, posture can help to draw attention
to birds that merit a closer look.
Feeding - The fact that
Lesser Sand Plovers stop to pick for food
more frequently than Greater Sand Plovers is a quick way to identify feeding
Sand Plovers. Lesser Sand Plovers
are primarily marine worm feeders, so pause often and walk forward to peck. Greater Sand
Plovers primarily feed on crabs and, upon sighting their prey, will run forward in
an often quite prolonged dash to reach the crab before it reaches its hole.
However, this food specialisation may vary according to substrate, and if there
are fewer crabs available or fewer marine worms available, the difference in
feeding behaviour may not be so
pronounced. In general, Greater Sand Plovers prefer slightly sandier substrates, where crabs
predominate, whereas Lesser Sand Plovers prefer wetter and muddier microhabitats.
Also note that Lesser Sand Plovers are usually more aggressively territorial feeders, defending their feeding territory from other Lesser
Sand Plovers and sometimes from other species as well.
- This guide has considered only those races, or subspecies, of Lesser and Greater Sand
Plovers that occur regularly in Australia: Charadrius mongolus mongolus
and Charadrius mongolus stegmanni (Lesser), and Charadrius
leschenaultii leschenaultii (Greater).
However, it is worth
outlining the full taxonomic position as Lesser Sand Plovers belonging
to other subspecies have been observed occasionally in Australia.
Five subspecies of Lesser
Sand Plover are generally recognised and these can be separated into two groups
that are identifiable in the field. The 'atrifrons' group comprises pamirensis,
atrifrons and schaeferi, and the 'mongolus' group
comprises mongolus and stegmanni. Whilst most Australian Lesser
Sand Plovers are considered to belong to the 'mongolus' group,
individuals belonging to the 'atrifrons' group have also been
observed. As these two groups may be split into separate species in the future,
it is worth making the effort to check through birds, especially when in
breeding plumage, to look for an 'atrifrons'.
Individuals of the 'atrifrons'
group differ from those of the 'mongolus' group in the following
- They are smaller.
- There is more
black on the forehead and less white.
The colour of the
breast is orange rather than rusty and lacks the black necklace.
- The orange on the
breast does not extend as far down the flanks.
Three subspecies of Greater
Sand Plover are generally recognised, being columbinus, crassirostris
and leschenaultii. As leschenaultii is the only subspecies known
to occur in Australia, the other two subspecies will not be discussed further.
Hopefully this guide will help to
resolve some of the problems encountered when trying to identify Sand Plovers.
But don't be disappointed if you have to "let one go". And if
anyone tells you that they never have any difficulty and always identify every
Sand Plover that they see - take it with a pinch of salt!
Many thanks to Danny Rogers and
David Bakewell for all of their extremely helpful feedback and suggestions
regarding the original version of this guide, much of which has been incorporated into
More information on Sand Plovers,
together with many excellent photographs, can be found by visiting David's blog
Deep and then typing
"sand plover" in the Search box.
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