Piping plovers can be tricky to correctly identify. They’re small (just larger than a sparrow) and their feathers are meant to be great camouflage on the beaches where they live, so they can hard to see sometimes. But a few tips and seeing comparisons with other species should help make identifying them easier the next time you’re out in the field.
In the Great Lakes Region piping plovers are most commonly confused with Killdeer. Killdeer are also in the plover family and found in similar habitat.
The easiest way to tell the two apart though is by the number of “necklaces” (or black bands on their chest) the bird has. Piping plovers only ever have one “necklace” on while Killdeer always have two. Killdeer also tend to be slightly larger, have a dark brown colored back, and a red ring around their eye. Notice that they also lack any orange on their bill or legs which is characteristic of piping plovers.
Another shorebird species commonly confused with piping plovers are spotted sandpipers. This species is found in the same habitat and have very similar behaviors to piping plovers. However, there is one behavior that can instantly identify this bird. Spotted sandpipers do what is commonly known as the “sewing machine.” While foraging for food they will bob their tails up and down just like the needle of a sewing machine. Piping plovers unfortunately don’t do any cool dance moves.
Spotted sandpipers are also spotted. Piping plovers only have a black “necklace” and “headband” for markings on their plumage. Spotted sandpipers have an eye stripe compared to a “headband” and are also more brown in color on their backs than piping plovers.