Golden-Plovers, American and Pacific
These two lovely, golden-backed birds are migratory visitors to Washington and are seen here most often in the fall.
American Golden-Plover (Pluvialis dominica)
Length: 10.5 inches
Wingspan: 26 inches
Weight: 5 ounces (145 grams)
AOU code: AMGP
Pacific Golden-Plover (Pluvialis fulva)
Length: 10.25 inches
Wingspan: 24 inches
Weight: 4.6 ounces (130 grams)
AOU code: PAGP
By Andy McCormick
Once considered a single species, the two golden-plovers are very similar in appearance and are difficult to distinguish in the field. Their beauty makes the task worthwhile.
What to Look For
The males in breeding plumage are almost totally black on the breast. The American Golden-Plover (right) is black to the tail. The Pacific Golden-Plover (below) is black to the belly with white under the tail.
Both males have a dramatic while neck stripe. On the American the neck stripe stops around the breast, where it widens. On the Pacific the neck stripe extends to the flanks (Alderfer).
The female and juveniles of the Pacific tend to be more golden or yellowish overall and have a sharply defined black patch directly behind the ear. They also have more golden-colored spots on their backs.
The female and juvenile American tend to be a bit whiter with a less well-defined mark behind the ear, and the golden spots are on the upper back.
Photo above: American Golden-Plover, by Tim Boyer
Photo below: Pacific Golden-Plover, by Mary Brisson
Named for the Rain
Both of these plovers are in the genus Pluvialis, Latin for rain or being associated with rain. We can only speculate about why this name was chosen.
The first American specimen was collected in the Dominican Republic, giving this species its name of dominica. The Pacific looks golden and sometimes reddish brown, relating to the species name fulva, Latin for brown (Holloway).
To Each Its Niche
The two species were once considered subspecies of the Lesser Golden-Plover, but they were designated separate species 1993 when it was confirmed that birds breeding in the same area of Alaska do not interbreed, have different breeding calls, and use different habitat during breeding (Kaufman).
Other aspects of their breeding are similar. Both make a shallow nest in the tundra, albeit the Pacific at lower altitudes on wetter tundra and the American on drier tundra. Usually four eggs are deposited and are incubated for about four weeks.
The young leave the nest soon after hatching and forage for food. First flight occurs in about 21 days (Kaufman).
Different Flyways, Different Risks
Both species are long-distance migrants, and migration season is when both are usually seen in the lower 48. The Pacific migrates along the Pacific Coast Flyway. The American migrates through the Central Flyway. Some American Golden-Plovers stray to the coast, however, posing an identification challenge.
The American winters in the pampas of eastern Argentina, an area that is being converted to agriculture at a very fast rate. The American likes rice fields, and therefore is at risk for exposure to detrimental pesticides.
The Pacific is more adaptive and winters in varied habitats, including coastal wetlands, mudflats, salt marshes, mangroves, beaches, residential lawns, and golf courses.
Both species’ breeding areas are potentially threatened by global warming. Rising temperatures will melt areas of the tundra, making it unsuitable for breeding (Johnson and Connors).
A management plan is in place for the American, and for now the Pacific appears to be holding its own.
For references, email Andy McCormick: firstname.lastname@example.org.