Northern Ireland's Priority Species

Pluvialis apricaria – golden plover

Pluvialis apricaria

Pluvialis apricaria (Gravenhorst, 1820), (Desvignes, 1856)
Family: Ichneumonidae

The haunting call of this wading bird is evocative of its remote moorland breeding grounds. In autumn and winter large numbers of golden plovers visit us to feed around our muddy shores and inland wetlands.

In brief

  • A wading bird with distinctive golden spangled plumage, with contrasting black face and belly in the breeding season
  • A rare breeder on remote moorland in Counties Antrim and Fermanagh
  • Large numbers visit our estuaries and other wetlands on passage and as winter visitors from northern breeding grounds
  • Most easily seen around Strangford Lough and Lough Neagh/Beg in winter
  • It is a SoCC because it is a rare and declining breeding species in Ireland

Species description
This is a medium-sized wading bird with an upright stance and short, straight bill. At all times of year, its upper parts look brownish from afar. Closer up, golden brown edges to the feathers give the bird a spangled appearance. In winter, their breasts are lightly streaked and their bellies white, but in the breeding season, the birds assume a strikingly black face and belly with white edges, which contrasts with the golden brown upper parts. In flight, golden plovers have very pointed wings, with a rather indistinct whitish wing bar.

In moorland habitat, golden plover are often first detected by the sound of their whistling call. On the wintering grounds, large noisy feeding flocks gather, which often wheel around in tight formation showing first their golden-brown backs and then their white bellies as they twist and turn over fields or mudflats.

Life cycle
Birds which breed here choose wild moorland sites, especially where there is short vegetation and hummocks which are used as vantage points. The males have a fluttering display flight during which they deliver their mournful whistle or a far-carrying trilling song. They nest on the ground, usually in a tussock of vegetation where they make a shallow scrape lined with grasses and moss. Four heavily-blotched buff eggs are laid, which hatch after about four weeks. The chicks are able to run and feed as soon as they hatch. Local breeding birds may remain in Ireland in winter, but they are joined by many thousand more from the Icelandic breeding population.

Similar species
Golden plovers are normally only likely to be confused with the grey plover, which winters in small numbers along our coast. However, grey plovers are larger, with heavier head and bill. Their winter plumage also appears greyer and colder, although juvenile birds do show a buffish tinge to their upper parts. In flight, grey plovers have very distinctive black ‘armpits’, while golden plovers show white.

The Eurasian golden plover is very similar to its close relative the American golden plover, although this is a very rare straggler to Ireland, mostly as juveniles. Again the Eurasian species’ white armpits are important, as the American species is dark grey-brown there. Otherwise, juveniles of the American species have a more prominent white stripe above the eye and have greyer upper parts. Expertise and practice is needed for certain identification of these vagrants. The even more similar Pacific golden plover is yet to be recorded in Northern Ireland.

How to see this species
Breeding golden plovers are restricted to a few remote moorland stations in Counties Antrim and Fermanagh, and should not be disturbed during the nesting season. Outside the breeding season, small flocks can be encountered on spring and autumn passage in almost any upland area of Northern Ireland.

Large wintering flocks can be seen at Strangford Lough, Lough Neagh/Beg and Lough Foyle from mid-October to March. Good views can often be obtained from the shoreline car parks and vantage points at the northern end of Strangford Lough, and also from the observation room at the RSPB Belfast Harbour Reserve.

Current status
The breeding population is known to be in decline in its Fermanagh sites. At one location, a survey in 2006 found only four pairs, compared to 12 pairs in 1995. The Northern Ireland breeding population may now be as small as 10-20 pairs.

Strangford Lough is of international importance for this species in winter. While numbers can fluctuate between years, the average count over the five-year period 2000-2005 was 9,600 birds. At least two other sites – Lough Neagh/Beg, Lough Foyle – are important in an Irish context.

The golden plover is still a quarry species in Northern Ireland, although it is protected by special penalties during the close season. It is listed in Annex I of the EU Birds Directive as a species which requires special conservation measures.

Why is this species a priority in Northern Ireland?
The golden plover is listed as a SoCC in Northern Ireland because it is a rare and declining breeding bird in Ireland.

Threats/Causes of decline
Many factors relating to moorland management can threaten breeding golden plovers. These include both overgrazing and undergrazing, and unregulated heather burning. In County Fermanagh it is possible that reduced stocking levels are contributing to the current decline, as plovers avoid areas of tall heather. Golden plovers are also susceptible to human disturbance on their breeding grounds.

Conservation of this species

Current action

  • All three breeding sites have been designated as ASSIs, and Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) by EHS. One site has also been designated as a Special Protection Area (SPA) for this species
  • The main sites used by this species in winter have been designated as ASSI and SPA by EHS
  • Key sites are surveyed each winter as part of the nationally co-ordinated Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS)
  • Several Northern Ireland Habitat Action Plans provide actions relevant to the conservation of golden plover habitat

Proposed objectives/actions

  • Breeding numbers within the SPA/ASSIs will be monitored and appropriate conservation action undertaken if required
  • Plover numbers at the most important wintering sites will continue to be monitored through WeBS surveys, and appropriate conservation action undertaken if required

What you can do

  • Volunteer as a Wetland Bird Survey counter by contacting EHS or RSPB
  • Report counts of golden plovers or records of breeding birds to: Flightline, Northern Ireland Birdwatchers’ Association, Tel: 028 9146 7408
  • Avoid disturbance to feeding or roosting flocks of waders in estuary areas by keeping a good distance while birdwatching and keeping dogs on leads

Further information

The RSPB: Golden plover fact sheet

BTO Golden plover fact sheet

Wetland Bird Survey details

Environment and Heritage Service – Conservation Designations

Northern Ireland Habitat Action Plans

Hayman, P., Marchant, J. and Prater, T. (1986). Shorebirds – an identification guide to the waders of the world. Helm, London.

Byrkjedal, I. and Thompson, D. (1998). Tundra plovers. Poyser, London.

Nethersole-Thompson, D. and Nethersole-Thompson M. (1986). Waders, their breeding, haunts and watchers. Poyser, London.

Text written by:
Allen & Mellon Environmental Ltd.