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Identification guide 2

Lesser and Greater Sand Plovers

The Pumicestone 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.

These statements 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.

The 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." This observation 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.

Although they 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.  

Note that:

  • Greater Sand Plovers are generally larger than Lesser Sand Plovers but the difference is often minimal.

  • Greater 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 Plover.


Plumage

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 Sand Plovers.

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 males.


The two 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.


 Robert Inglis took this photograph of Greater Sand Plovers at Buckley's Hole on March 19th 2007. Their plumages also range from non-breeding through to breeding.

Note that:

  • 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.

  • In breeding 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.

  • Greater Sand 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.

 

The following 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. 


Bill

The shape and size of the bill can vary between individuals of the same species. At least the bill colour is always black!

 

Lesser Sand Plovers


Greater Sand Plovers

Note that:

  • 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.

  • Another feature 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.

  • The photograph 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 Sand Plovers.


Legs

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.

 

Lesser Sand Plovers


Greater Sand Plovers

Note that:

  • 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 shadow.

  • 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).


Miscellaneous tips

  • 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 Sand Plovers.

  • 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 inner primaries.

  • 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.


Final observations

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.

Taxonomy - 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 ways:

  • 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!

 

Acknowledgements

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 this current version.

More information on Sand Plovers, together with many excellent photographs, can be found by visiting David's blog at Dig Deep and then typing "sand plover" in the Search box.

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