Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Piping Plover courtship display

Snow, sleet and rain kept me indoors most of the day, although I did venture out on the beach at Sandy Hook this morning for a quick look to see what's doing.

At the end of Fisherman's Trail on North Beach, three Piping Plovers were engaged in courtship display. I saw a male doing an aerial display, which involves a circular flight with sometimes slow, exaggerated wing beats and much calling.

That male landed not 10 meters in front of me, where a female was standing. The other male, which had also been calling and flying around, left. The remaining male continued his courtship display.

The next step, after aerial display, is the so-called nest-scraping display, in which the male leans forward, pushes his breast into the sand and shakes around a bit, thus creating a small depression in the sand. Listen for his calls as he does this, the calls are part of the display. First we see him remove small pebbles and shell fragments from that area. He'll create several nesting depressions in his territory, one of which may be chosen by the female as the eventual nest site.

Next, he will do a tilt display: he'll bend over, opens his wings a little and spreads his tail; the female crouches under his spread tail. I saw this behavior a couple of times.

The next step in the display is a hilarious, pre-copulatory goose-step that the male performs. He'll walk up on crouched legs toward the female, then completely changes his posture to standing very erect, showing off his breast band. In this position, he'll start tapping his legs.

Apparently, this can go on for several minutes and is usually followed by copulation (Elliott-Smith & Haig, 2004), although I did not see any copulation this morning. In this fragment, she just walks off, and he goes back to removing bits of shell and pebble.

I was delighted to observe this elaborate courtship behavior today, and felt lucky to capture some of it on video. The clips shown here are small fragments of longer, much higher-quality footage and were drastically down-sized for web viewing.

Still better of course is to go out and see this for yourself. Now is really the time to come to the Hook and look for them. These shenanigans will likely be going on for the next couple of weeks or so. Once they have eggs, they will be less conspicuous. Just remember to be mindful of the birds, don't disturb them, and respect the boundaries of the marked-off areas on the beach. The Piping Plover's IUCN status is Near Threatened, with an estimated global population of about 6,000 individuals.

Cited literature:
Elliott-Smith, Elise and Susan M. Haig. 2004. Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:

1 comment: said...

Amazing! These birds blend so well with the surrounding beach, you have to work to reallly see them at times even with the scope. Thank-you!