The Black-bellied Plover, known as the Grey Plover in the Old World, breeds widely in the high Arctic of North America and Eurasia and winters over a broad latitudinal extent, equally at home in temperate and tropical climates—truly one of our most wide-ranging shorebirds. This species winters as far north as any plover, perhaps aided by its large size (favorable for thermoregulation and diversity of prey base) and its ability to vary feeding tactics. In North America it breeds from western Alaska through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and winters from British Columbia and Massachusetts south along the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf coasts. During spring and fall migration it is locally common on all three coasts of North America and on the Great Plains, less common elsewhere across the continent.
On its wintering grounds, the Black-bellied Plover roosts in dense flocks but spreads out over sandy and muddy flats to forage as the tide recedes. Although generally a coastal bird, it also forages successfully in freshwater and upland habitats. Individuals may defend permanent winter territories or roam widely. Polychaetes and small bivalves are favorite foods of this species, but its diet is varied. Its large eyes are adapted to nocturnal foraging, which is common.
The Black-bellied Plover breeds in relatively dry tundra with abundant lichens, herbs, and low shrubs. Aerial displays and vocalizations by males mark its large nesting territories, defended against golden-plovers as well as conspecifics. The nest, a shallow scrape lined with lichens, typically contains four eggs, and both adults incubate and care for the young.
The long-distance migrations of this species are facilitated by its rapid flight speed. Wary and quick to give alarm calls, the Black-bellied Plover functions worldwide as a sentinel for mixed assemblages of shorebirds. These qualities allowed it to resist market hunters, and it remained common when species of similar size were decimated.
Many aspects of its nonbreeding ecology have been well studied in Europe but relatively little studied in North America. Breeding-biology studies, on the contrary, are mostly from North America. Together, these studies provide a fairly comprehensive portrait of the largest and widest-ranging of the marine plovers, in many ways a model for studies of other shorebird species.