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Living Sanibel: Wilson and piping plovers

By Staff | Mar 30, 2016

This Wilson’s plover is sitting with its chick. PHOTO BY ROB PAILES

Wilson’s Plover

Named after an early ornithologist, Alexander Wilson, who first discovered the bird in 1913 at Cape May, New Jersey, this plover is considerably larger than the snowy plover. The primary differences are the neckband, which for the Wilson’s plover continues all around the bird’s neck-hence the nickname ringneck. Another noticeable difference is the thicker, longer black bill, allowing the Wilson’s plover to feed on larger prey, such as fiddler crabs, crustaceans, and insects.

The primary habitat for the Wilson’s plover is along the water’s edge, where it looks for coquinas, marine worms, and other prey. Like its cousin the killdeer, both the male and female feign a broken wing when its nest, or chicks are approached by animals or beachcombers. The Wilson’s plover is monogamous and a solitary nester. Its primary threat is continued beach-front development, which results in loss of suitable nesting habitat.

Piping Plover

Very similar in size and appearance to the snowy plover, the piping plover is estimated to number 450 in the entire state of Florida. The easiest way to distinguish between the snowy and the piping is by the piping’s bright yellow legs and multicolored beak with an orange base and black tip. Because its coloration resembles the sand it forages over, the piping plover is very difficult to see, even when it is mere yards in front of you.


Unlike some of the other sandpipers, the piping plover prefers feeding along the upper segments of the beach, hanging closer to the vegetation line. There it feeds on fly larvae, beetles, and crustaceans. The piping plover was once a relatively common shorebird. It has suffered primarily from habitat loss because of human intrusion into much of its former range: beaches and beach dunes. The bird has been unable to adapt to a species that loves the beach as much as it does-namely, Homo sapiens. It also suffers from irregular releases of dams, which can result in the loss of entire broods.

This is an excerpt from Living Sanibel – A Nature Guide to Sanibel & Captiva Islands by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Bai