West Midland Bird Club

'White-tailed Plover: new to Britain and Ireland'

This article, by members of the Club, first appeared in ‘British Birds’ volume 70:11 (page 465–471), in November 1977. 

Bird and place names were spelt as shown. For their current status, please see our county lists.


White-tailed Plover: new to Britain and Ireland
A. R. Dean, J. E. Fortey and E. G. Phillips

The excavation of sand and gravel at Packington, Warwickshire, has created a system of freshwater pools which regularly attracts migrating waders. At 13.30 GMT on 12th July 1975, JEF, Mrs E. Green and EGP were searching the area for migrants when a medium-sized wader of remarkable appearance flew past them and landed on an area of thinly-vegetated sand and shingle about 30m ahead. In flight, a striking black-and-white wing pattern and a uniformly white tail were the predominant features, but when the bird landed it revealed primarily sandy body plumage, a pale greyish-white head, and long, bright yellow legs.

The general shape and character, particularly the broad and rounded wings, indicated a Vanellus Plover. The body colour initially suggested a Sociable Plover V. gregarius, but the leg colour and the lack of discrete head- and tail- markings clearly precluded that species. The area of white in the wing was also unusually large, extending from the secondaries on to the greater coverts and showing as a white bar along the lower edge of the folded wing. The only reference book available at the time Peterson et al. (1965), but, from the brief description which it contained, the observers concluded that the bird was a White-tailed Plover V. leucurus, the first to be recorded in Britain and Ireland.

By chance, ARD arrived in the area at 16.00 hours and was informed of the discovery. Other observers, including A. R. M. Blake, R. A. Hume, P. D. Hyde, P. J. Milford and J. H. W. Ridley, were contacted and before dark a comprehensive series of notes, sketches and photographs had been obtained. Subsequent comparison of plumage details with Dementiev and Gladkov (1966), Etchecopar and Hue (1967) and Heinzel et al. (1972) suggested that the plover was an adult male. It remained in the area until 18th July and was seen by several hundred observers from all over Britain. Independent descriptions by ARD, RAH, EGP, M. R. Seaman and others were later examined and accepted by the Rarities Committee and by the Records Committee of the British Ornithologists' Union.

Size and structure

The White-tailed Plover appeared a little smaller than Lapwings V. vanellus in the vicinity, although it was not possible to compare the two species directly. The general proportions were also reminiscent of Lapwing, the full-breasted character of that species being in evidence and the girth conspicuously greater than that of a nearby Redshank Tringa totanus. At rest, the wings cloaked the tail, but extended little beyond it; in flight, they were revealed as broad and rounded at the tip, and this contributed further to an impression of sturdiness. Nevertheless, owing to its smoothly contoured head, relatively longer bill and, particularly, its much longer legs, the White-tailed Plover possessed a distinctly more graceful character than that of a Lapwing. The bill was about three-quarters as long as the head, compared with one-half in the Lapwing. The legs were decidedly long, being approximately one-and-a-half times the maximum body-depth: more closely comparable with Tringa sandpipers than with typical plovers.

Plumage and bare parts

Head greyish-white, distinctly paler than mantle, but, at close range, fine sandy streaking visible on crown and ear-coverts. Absence of streaking immediately above eye resulted in off-white supercilium running back towards nape. Mantle, scapulars and inner wing-coverts grey-brown with pink or mauve suffusion, which varied in intensity with light conditions: basic colour similar to, but a shade warmer than, nearby Little Ringed Plovers Charadrius dubius. Throat off-white, and neck and breast sandy-grey, becoming progressively warmer in colour and culminating in copper-brown across lower breast. Belly, flanks and vent off-white, with orange-pink flush, latter particularly apparent when bird stooped to feed with tail towards observer. Largely black primaries and tips to outermost secondaries formed extensive black tip to spread wing and dark margin to point of folded wing. Inner secondaries, tips of greater coverts and carpal region white, combining to form broad panel across spread wing from tips of tertials to carpal joint; at rest, this feature reduced to narrow white bar along lower edge of wing. Sub-terminal blackish line across outer secondary coverts separated white from grey- brown areas of wing. Underwing-coverts white, contrasting with black primaries; tail and tail-coverts uniformly white. Difficult to determine exact colour of iris, but it always appeared dark and was considered by at least some observers to be deep red. Bill black. Legs bright yellow.

127. White-tailed Plover Vanellus leucurus, Warwickshire, July 1975 (A. R. Dean)

General field-characters and behaviour

The black-and-white wing pattern, unmarked white tail, pale, basically uniform head, and very long, bright yellow legs make the White-tailed Plover a relatively distinctive species. The remarkable, if rather complex, wing pattern recalled that of Sociable Plover or Spur-winged Plover V. spinosus (with which some observers were familiar), although the area of white in the wing was considerably more extensive. The combination of black primaries, predominantly white secondaries and grey-brown coverts prompted comparisons with Sabine's Gull Larus sabini by several observers. Compared with most other Vanellus plovers in full plumage, the under- parts displayed relatively little contrast. The darkest zone of colour, at the boundary of breast and belly, occasionally suggested a discrete band when the bird rested in a hunched-up position, but became poorly defined during active feeding.

The very long legs were perhaps the outstanding character when the bird was at rest and, in flight, the degree to which they extended beyond the tip of the tail was impressive. When the bird squatted, thus hiding its legs, it could be surprisingly difficult to locate against a background of sand and stones.

The plover fed on dry ground and in water up to several centimeters deep; prey items were taken from the surface of the water, but not infrequently the whole head was submerged. On dry ground, the gait, although more mobile than that of a Lapwing, conformed to the usual plover pattern of three or four steps followed by a stoop-and-peck action.

Occasionally, the plover would bob its head in the manner of a Redshank, sometimes before taking flight.

Notes on the species

Dementiev and Gladkov (1966) and Vaurie (1965) described the breeding range of the White-tailed Plover as including the USSR east of the Caspian (Kazakhstan, Transcaspia, Turkestan) and parts of Iran and Iraq, while the Turkish Bird Report 1970–1973 described the recent discovery of a small breeding population in central Turkey. A few are apparently resident in Iran and Iraq, but the population from the USSR migrates to winter in Egypt, the Sudan, the Persian Gulf and northwest India (Fig. 1). The nest is usually a shallow depression on open ground, but occasionally a sparse lining of vegetation is included, and a substructure of mud may even be incorporated, perhaps as a precaution against flooding (Gooders 1969). Typical nest sites include dried rice-paddies, overgrown islets, and well-vegetated pools and marshes. The usual clutch contains four eggs, laid in late April or May. Although the total range of the species is small, it is a common bird in parts and concentrations of up to 100 pairs have been recorded. Aquatic larvae and grasshoppers are its principal food items, and its long legs enable it to wade in quite deep water to pursue the former.

Fig. 1. Breeding and wintering ranges of White-tailed Plover Vanellus leucurus (modified from Dementiev and Gladkov 1966)

European records in 1975

Until 1975, White-tailed Plovers were regarded as extreme vagrants except in southwest Asia and northeast Africa, the only European records outside Russia being from Austria (1968), France (1840), Greece (1958 and 1966) and Malta (1864, 1869 and 1973). Not surprisingly, therefore, the occurrence of one in central Britain was initially greeted with some incredulity. Although P. J. Stead and M. D. England (in litt.) established that some had been imported into Britain by dealers, inquiries by the review bodies indicated that the likelihood of escape was small; on the other hand, investigations revealed that there had been no less than eight European records during 1975 (Fig. 2). The Austrian records in March–April and July, both in the Neusiedlersee area, were considered to involve the same individual, while the closeness of some of the other dates suggests that the number of birds involved in this remarkable incursion may have been less than eight. Nevertheless, the combination of these records and their geographical spread strongly indicate a genuine influx of White-tailed Plovers northwestwards into Europe from their Asiatic breeding grounds. The reasons for such an influx remain obscure, but, if recent developments in Transcaucasia and Turkey reflect a phase of range expansion, then a certain amount of extralimital movement might be expected. In the USSR west of the Caspian (Azerbaydzhan SSR), nesting was first suspected in 1954 and confirmed in 1961 and 1963 (Vinogradov 1963). In May 1970, a displaying pair was seen in southern Turkey, and breeding was confirmed in 1971 in two well-separated parts of Anatolia: two pairs were present and one nest found on the Goksu delta (south coast) and nine pairs present (two nests found) on wetlands near Yarma on the central plateau; before 1970, there had been only one record for Turkey, and that as long ago as 1910 (Kumerloeve 1971, Ornithological Society of Turkey 1975). Thus, a westward expansion may be in progress, although it has yet to be ascertained whether this represents permanent colonisation or irruption due to desiccation farther east.

Fig. 2. European records of White-tailed Plovers Vanellus leucurus during 1975, numbered chronologically.

  1. Illmitz, Austria, 29th March to 29th April and 5th to 17th July.
  2. Sicily, Italy, 19th April.
  3. Koszalin, Poland, 30th April.
  4. Morko, Sweden, 10th May.
  5. Hamina, Finland, 11th to 16th May.
  6. Agard, Hungary, 23rd May.
  7. Texel, Netherlands, 9th to 12th July.
  8. Packington, England, 12th to 18th July.

Acknowledgements

We should like to thank the various individuals who submitted details of their observations to the review. bodies. R. A. Hume contributed much useful discussion of plumage characters and a valuable criticism of an earlier draft. M. Brandel, Jeno Radetzky, W. Semmler, Dr J. T. R. Sharrock and R. Triebl kindly provided details of other European records during 1975, while a summary of recent distributional changes was supplied by R. Hudson. Special thanks are due to the Earl of Aylesford and the head keeper of Packington Estate, L. J. Brown, for permitting temporary access to private land.

Summary

A White-tailed Plover Vanellus leucurus at Packington, Warwickshire, from 12th to 18th July 1975 was the first to be recorded in Britain and Ireland. Principal characteristics were generally vinous-brown upperparts and breast, a strikingly black-and-white wing pattern, uniformly white tail, and long, bright yellow legs. During 1975, White-tailed Plovers were reported in seven other European countries, constituting an unprecedented influx into Europe and perhaps reflecting a westward expansion of the breeding range.

References

A. R. Dean
E. Fortey
E. G. Phillips
[postal addresses removed]

The White-tailed Plover is now known as the White-tailed Lapwing.

Reproduced by kind permission of British Birds *.
Thanks to Dr. Malcolm Ogilvie for scanning the original, from his collection.

© West Midland Bird Club, 147 World's End Lane, Birmingham, England B32 1JX
Registered charity, number 213311

Ornithology in Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire & the West Midlands county, since 1929.

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