This winter has been incredible for rare birds in Maine. From a Harris’s Sparrow in Turner, to the Sage Thrasher at Gilsland Farm, and sprinkle in Northern Lapwings (5 in Hodgdon, and one each in Thomaston and Kennebunkport, a couple Townsend’s Solitaires, and the first New England record of Broad-tailed Hummingbird, there seems to be something new every week. And we wrapped up January with a big one: Common Ringed Plover.
February 5 update: Sadly we have to report that this bird passed away this morning, succumbing, we believe, to the elements, which is often the fate of vagrants.
Background: Don’t be fooled by the name, as “common” is referring to its status across the Western Palearctic. Their breeding range does extend into northeastern arctic Canada and Greenland, but those birds migrate south to winter in western Africa. Away from that sliver of North America that they breed in, they are extremely uncommon, and prior to this sighting it has only been recorded in Maine twice before. Both of those previous records are fall migrants, apparently following their look-a-like cousins, the Semipalmated Plover, through the New World, instead of staying east and heading south in their Old World range. Maine’s first record was 26 Aug – 3 Sep 2003, an adult at the Lubec Sandbar in Washington County, and the second was more recent, but even more remote: a juvenile found on Seal Island NWR, in Knox County, 15-19 Sep 2020 (ME-BRC 10th Report). This new bird was found by Tom Aversa at Timber Point in Biddeford on 30 Jan 2023. Originally ID’d as a Semipalmated Plover and even though that is a very common migrant in spring in fall, there are no winter records of that species in Maine. After viewing Tom’s photos, we raced down to confirm the challenging identification (see more below). Of note, there was also a Common Ringed Plover at Kelleys Cove–Sunday Point, Yarmouth, Nova Scotia from 11-12 Jan 2023, just about 214 miles (344 km) as the plover flies, though comparison of photos of these two seems to show they are different individuals.
How/where to see: The Common Ringed Plover was found and continues to be seen along the beach of Curtis Cove, at the end of Granite Point Road in Biddeford. This is the beginning of Timber Point, which, since becoming part of the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, has become a top hotspot for birding in Maine. There are parking spaces at the “Timber Point Trail” on Google Maps (140 Granite Point Road, Biddeford), but note there are only six designated spots there. The dirt path on the north side (not the road continuing along the cove) often has space for overflow vehicles. Please follow posted parking rules and make sure to not block access, especially for those spots. Tom saw the bird at high tide on Monday, Jan. 30, and it was low tide when spotted on Tuesday. It was seen continuously after that, always on this same beach, so subsequent efforts should begin here. There are plenty of other sand beaches nearby, especially Goose Rocks across the river, where this bird should be looked for if it departs this cove.
ID Tips: Picking a Common Ringed Plover out of a flock of Semipalmated Plovers is a [or some] birder’s dream. Fortunately, this bird is the only plover in the state right now, which makes finding that ‘needle in a haystack’ a lot easier when there is no hay. That said, you should know why it is a Common Ringed Plover when you see it, beyond ‘because we said so’. Here are some helpful, albeit subtle, differences between Common Ringed Plover and Semipalmated Plover:
- Webbing of toes: The name semipalmated is referencing the amount of webbing, or palmation, between the toes of these birds. Semipalmated Plovers have partially webbed toes, and importantly it is between each toe. Common Ringed Plovers have no webbing between their inner and middle toes but do have minor webbing between their middle and outer toes.
- Orbital ring: The unfeathered skin around the eye is called the orbital ring, which in Semipalmated Plovers is a yellow color. The orbital in Common Ringed is dark. Like the webbing of the toes, this is a diagnostic field mark, but both can be very hard to see, especially at a distance.
- Gape: Less diagnostic than the above features, but the presence of white feathering above the gape (corner of the mouth) is more commonly seen in Semipalmated Plover. Common Ringed Plovers typically have the dark feathers above the beak extend down to the gape but beware some Semipalmated can show that too.
- Supercilium: The ‘eyebrow’ of Common Ringed Plovers is typically broader and more distinct, especially the amount extending behind the eye (post ocular). This is also very variable between the species but paired with the above features is helpful.
- Breast band: Like the supercilium, the thickness of the dark band across the breast of a Common Ringed Plover is greater than what you’d expect on Semipalmated Plovers.
- Structure: We’re getting really subtle now, but Common Ringed and Semipalmated plovers are just built different. Common Ringed have a square-headed look. The bill shape is also not as deep as a Semipalmated would show, giving it a thinner or longer appearance than we’d expect to see on a Semipalmated. Common Ringed also look a bit longer than Semipalmated, as if someone tugged on either end, stretching them out a bit.
- Color: The upper parts of Common Ringed Plovers appear slightly lighter and grayer than what we see on Semipalmated Plovers, which show a warmer reddish-brown back. This will be hard to appreciate in the field, without any other plovers around to compare.
Updated sightings are best found on eBird or GroupMe. Using eBird’s ‘Rare Bird Alert’ for York County. You can see recent sightings with notes and photos. However, the timeliest reports are likely to be posted on the Maine Rare Bird Alert GroupMe, which you can sign up for here: tinyurl.com/MaineRBAGroupMeRules