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A spring American golden plover photographed near West Fargo after returning from wintering areas in southern South America.

Killdeer relative known for long-distance migration

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The nesting season is all but over for the vast majority of birds in the Northern Hemisphere. Many finished the business of gene perpetuation some months past. About a week ago, songbirds began to show movement away from territory, starting the process of migration. But for birders, the star attractions during this late summer lull have been shorebirds. Since the middle of July, these skinny-legged water lovers have been putting on quite a show upon their return to our area, often from high Arctic nesting grounds.

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Of the twenty-some regular shorebird species which can be found in North Dakota, one small group - the plovers - is quite intriguing. Easily the most recognizable of the clan is the ubiquitous killdeer. It's found nesting on gravel roads, on golf courses, in abandoned yards, just about anywhere in the state with a patch of open ground. Known for its eponymous call, the killdeer is also famous for the "broken-wing" display put on to distract would-be predators away from its nearby nest.

Roughly nine plover (usually pronounced "pluh-ver") species are seen in the continental U.S. with any regularity. In North Dakota the number gets smaller, perhaps five or six. As a whole, the group is known for, well, just about all the familiar things we know of killdeer. Thick-necks, small bills, long wings, strong flight, fast running ability, and disruptive colors separate the plovers from most other shorebirds.

One species - the American golden plover - made a grand statement this spring by appearing in the hundreds around the flooded fields near West Fargo. In association with the closely related black-bellied plover, these birds were seen for several days until the urge to breed moved them along. Now the birds are here again.

Spring adults are a picture of beauty with a drape of black back feathering flecked with gold. A broad, contrasting white arc extends from its forehead down to its upper flank. Below, from its face to its undertail, is a region of pure black. The fall adult birds being seen now, however, are losing the crisp feathering to wear and molt on their way to a drab gray winter coat.

American golden plovers can be quite vocal even while flying overhead. David Sibley describes the flight call as a "sad-sounding, urgent queedle." Quite different from the high whistled "peeooEEE," of the black-bellied plover with which it can be confused, especially in the fall.

Like most plovers, American goldens are usually associated with upland areas despite being classified as a shorebird. Freshly plowed fields, pastures, prairies and mud flats are preferred sites where the birds feed mainly on crickets, grasshoppers and other invertebrates.

There are prescribed stopping points along designated bird survey routes I conduct in spring. Some spots are nothing more than farmland which tends to be rather dull. But occasionally the boredom is broken by what appears to be mounds of dirt beginning to stir. Those mounds of course, are plovers, often American golden plovers.

This highlights the idea of broken coloration. One would surmise that, given the seemingly bold pattern of plovers, the birds would be easy targets for predators. But think of the killdeer around here. How often have we walked near one without notice, only to witness the bird explode into noisy flight? Likewise, the American golden plover blends seamlessly into the tundra of its Arctic nesting ground as well as the fields and prairies of the Great Plains.

We have a few more weeks with which to view these birds before they embark on a rather impressive migration. I'm not sure of the route taken by the plovers we see locally, but most birds eventually end up on the upper Atlantic coast. From there they launch a non-stop oceanic voyage of thousands of miles before arriving in southern South America.

Their overall population continues a long, slow rebound from the late 19th century when market hunting brought the American golden plover to near extinction. Thankfully we will see them again next spring. It's merely a case of scanning fields and - like killdeer - waiting for the birds to move.

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