Probable Pacific Golden-Plover (Pluvialis fulva) in New Jersey, September 2001

On 4th September 2001, Richard Crossley found an adult Pacific Golden-Plover (Pluvialis fulva) at the Johnson Sod Farm near Deerfield in New Jersey. Quickly confirmed by Michael O'Brien and Evan Obercian, the news was rapidly broadcast by Shawneen Finnegan and Laurie Larson, allowing many birders to see this extreme rarity. If accepted, this will be  the second record for Eastern North America. The following Saturday (8th Sept. 2001), TomBurke and I traveled down from New York to see this interesting bird for ourselves. Here is a collection of digital images (taken with either Nikon Coolpix 880 digital camera or Sony TRV900 digital videocamera held to Kowa TSN-4 scope at 20x) and some quick notes and comments. The bird remained rather distant and there was a lot of heat shimmer, so the images are a little fuzzy!

The most striking feature was the state of feather wear. The wing coverts were worn almost white and the tertials were so worn as to have pieces missing. Even in flight we could pick out the bird by the pale uppersurfaces of the inner wings. In contrast, the adult American Golden-Plovers (P. dominica) were much less obviously worn although showing various degrees of body feather molt. At present, I'm not sure how to explain the plumage state of the proposed Pacific Golden-Plover. Could this be a second year bird? According to Byrkjedal and Thompson (1998, see below), the body feather molt of adult American Golden Plovers tends to occur slightly later than in Pacific Golden-Plover, so one might expect a Pacific Golden-Plover to have replaced more body feathers. Does this timing apply to wing coverts?

The bill length was useful in pinning down the Pacific Golden-Plover. It seemed slightly longer and distinctly shallower than the accompanying American Golden-Plovers (see below). The flanks were pale gray with heavy near-vertical black barring.

For comparison, here is a spring adult Pacific Golden-Plover in alternate-plumage (above). The bill on this bird seems even shallower than the New Jersey individual.

Videograb showing a close up of the folded primaries and tail. The primaries were no more than a fraction longer than the tail and only two or maybe three projected beyond the long but frayed tertial tips. This profile contrasted strongly with the very attenuated look of both adult and juvenile American Golden-Plovers. On the American Golden-Plovers it was not difficult to see that the primaries extended well beyond the tail tip and at least four primaries were evident beyond the tertials.

Close-up of the frayed tertials and less obviously abraded primaries.

The Pacific Golden-Plover had a more obvious golden tint to the mantle and scapulars. This was evident at a good distance and over a range of light conditions. Likewise, the crown showed more color (golden speckles) than on the adult American Golden-Plovers which showed a more uniform dark cap.

Two views of the largely unmarked undertail coverts and vent as the bird dips forward.

The band of dark feathering running down the hindneck appeared broader (not narrower as stated in earlier version of this page) than on the American Golden-Plovers.  Even accounting for wear this seems an interesting difference. Notice also the rich gold tones to the scapulars and mantle feathers.

Other details:

In flight, the plover appeared to have grayish underwing coverts and axillaries and I could discern no obvious difference from American Golden-Plover. Even though the bird looked longer legged than the American Golden-Plovers on the ground, I was unable to see the legs project beyond the tail in flight.  Obviously this is a negative observation (or non-finding) and shouldn't really factor into the identification. As the Golden-Plovers wandered over the turf, Tom Burke pointed out an interesting difference in stance. He noticed that the American Golden-Plovers tended to stand very upright when they come to halt ? as if coming to attention. In contrast, the Pacific Golden-Plover seemed less stiffly erect each time it stood still. I don't have enough experience with Pacific Golden-Plover to know if this is meaningful. Perhaps observers in Asia or the Pacific can comment?

Although disturbed a couple of times by workers from the farm, the plovers were relatively silent and we did not detect any calls from the Pacific Golden-Plover.

There is a large literature on the identification of Golden-Plovers, primarily from Europe. A phenomenal source of information is "The Tundra Plovers: The Eurasian, Pacific and American Golden Plovers and Grey Plover" (1998) by Ingvar Byrkjedal and Des Thompson, T &AD Poyser Press. This is a must for any shorebird lover!

In summary, the following features seem to support the identification of this bird as a Pacific Golden-Plover.

- Short primary projection.
- Relatively unmarked undertail coverts/vent.
- Longer, shallower bill.
- Limited black on the flanks.
- Narrower strip of white extending down the side of neck to bend of folded wing.
- Supercilium narrower and less sharply defined.
- Rangier, less compact appearance on ground, seemingly longer legged.
- Broader dark strip down nape.

Obviously, we would all be interesting in counter-arguments  or comments for those with extensive experience of Pacific and American Golden-Plover. This is never an easy identification. Ultimately the final call rests with the finders and the New Jersey Records Committee. Supporting documentation should be submitted to the NJBRC by everyone lucky enough to enjoy this bird.

Acknowledgments: Congratulations to Crossley, O'Brien and Obercian for an astounding find! The differences described above as subtle and hard to notice on a quick scan of a distant flock of Golden-Plovers.  I am mightly impressed! Many thanks also to the New Jersey folks, especially Laurie and Shawneen, for excellent directions and daily updates.

All images and text copyright of Angus Wilson/Ocean Wanderers© 2001.

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