American Golden-Plover

Pluvialis dominica


Distribution, Migration, and Habitat

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Figure 1. Distribution of American Golden-Plover in North and Central America.

Distribution of American Golden-Plovers in North America. There are a few records of overwintering American Golden-Plovers from the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of the U.S. The main overwintering range is located in other regions of the world (see Distribution).

eBird range map for American Golden-Plover

Generated from eBird observations (Year-Round, 1900-present)

Figure 2. Annual cycle of American Golden-Plover.

Figure is based on the annual cycle of Pacific Golden-Plovers overwintering in Hawaii and breeding in Alaska (Seward Peninsula). Most of American Golden-Plover cycle in Alaska (arrival, breeding, initiation of body molt, and departure) is similar; completion of body molt and primary molt need study. On distant overwintering range of American Golden-Plover in the Southern Hemisphere, spring migration begins much earlier than shown here, and fall movements of juveniles may extend later into the fall and early winter months; see Migration for details.

American Golden-Plover breeding habitat.

Nests primarily on arctic and subarctic tundra, sometimes on montane tundra.

© Justin Streit , Alaska , United States , 7 June 2017
American Golden-Plover breeding habitat.

In some areas, moist habitat with taller vegetation also used.

© Justin Saunders , Alaska , United States , 21 June 2017
American Golden-Plover habitat in migration.

Uses a variety of inland and coastal habitats, both natural and human-made: native prairie, pastures, tilled farmland, untilled harvested fields, burned fields, mudflats, shorelines, estuaries.

© Shailesh Pinto , Ohio , United States , 24 April 2016
American Golden-Plover overwintering habitat.

American Golden-Plovers overwinter primarily on pampas in east-central Argentina and campos in Uruguay and southern Brazil.

© Angeles Loredo , Buenos Aires , Argentina , 15 October 2017

Distribution in the Americas

Breeding Range

Main breeding range is from northeastern Manitoba (Churchill region) across most of Nunavut (77) and Northwest Territories including major islands of Southampton, Victoria, Banks, Melville, Devon, and much of Baffin; south through the Yukon Territory (for recent nesting records in southwest Yukon, see Nouvet et al. [78]) to Spatzizi Plateau in north-central British Columbia (79, 80); west through northern and central Alaska, including entire Seward Peninsula; then south along Norton Sound, to watersheds of the Pikmiktalik and Andreafsky rivers; also Cape Romanzof (B. McCaffery, personal communication), Askinuk Mountains (81), and Nelson Island (37, 82). Sympatric with Pacific Golden-Plover over portions of range in western Alaska, especially on the Seward Peninsula.

Small populations nest along coast of Hudson Bay at Cape Henrietta Maria in northeastern Ontario and near Pen Island at northernmost tip of Ontario; other localized breeding grounds probably occur in the coastal region between these two widely separated sites (83, 84, 85). Localized nesting has also been reported in west-central Alberta at Caw Ridge and Sulphur Ridge (86), central British Columbia in Chilcotin region (79, 80), and in the Lake Clark–Lake Iliamna region, Alaska (87).

Breeding distribution needs further study and revision. Vast range in Canada is shown in Figure 1 (based mostly on 88, 31) traverses many remote and nearly inaccessible regions, thus boundaries somewhat arbitrary. In Alaska, American Golden-Plover range probably includes Nunivak Island (81) and many high tundra ridges in southwestern and south-central parts of state, including Talkeetna Mountains, southern Wrangell Mountains (M. Bronson and P. Bruner, personal communication), and the eastern Wrangell Mountains (89). Possibly breeding on Stuart Island in Norton Sound, Bering Sea (90).

Overwintering Range

The primary overwintering range is on grasslands, coastal and inland wetlands, and farmlands from southern Brazil (Rio Grande do Sul), Paraguay, southern Bolivia, and Chile (to Santiago) southward through Uruguay and Argentina (to Cordoba, Mendoza, Bahia Blanca; some birds ranging to Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego (82, 91, 92). Overwintering has also been reported from north-coastal and inland Brazil. For a list of Important Bird Area overwintering sites in South America, see 93. Paraguay apparently hosts mostly southbound transients since plovers become rare after mid December (50). Only small numbers occur in Chile, and records might include misidentified Pacific Golden-Plovers.

A few may overwinter in Central America, Colombia, Venezuela, and Guyana, though late fall stragglers or early spring migrants could be misinterpreted as overwintering birds. American Golden-Plover appears to be only an occasional transients near San Jose del Cabo and La Paz at the southern tip of Baja California (94, 95), and they are extremely rare elsewhere on the Baja California Peninsula (see 96). This species' overwintering status along the Pacific Coast is muddled due to confusion in identifying American vs. Pacific golden-plovers (see 2); however, only the Pacific Golden-Plover is known to overwinter in California (97, 98, 82), suggesting that questionable birds are of that species. American Golden-Plover is rare along Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the U.S., with most records occurring in Florida (see 99).

Distribution Outside the Americas

Breeding Range

Various observations of American Golden-Plover over many years suggested breeding in Chukotka, Far East Russia, and likely Wrangel Island and Herald Island in the Chukchi Sea (100, 101, 102, 103, 104, 105), but it wasn't until 2013 when a territorial pair was documented incubating a clutch of 4 eggs on the Ekvyvatap River delta, northeastern Chukotka (106, 107), the first definitive nesting record for the Palearctic. The only other breeding record in Chukotka involved an aberrant situation in which a male American Golden-Plover and a female Black-bellied Plover nested unsuccessfully (108).

Extralimital Records

Casual or accidental in many places (15, 82). Some extralimital records probably the result of breeding-ground sympatry and occasional association with the “wrong flock,” such as American Golden-Plovers from western end of range migrating with Pacific Golden-Plovers, or perhaps hybridization (though apparently rare, see 73) is involved. Notable extralimital records include: Okinawa, Japan (109); Honshu, Japan (110); New Zealand (5, 111); Mauritania (112); and the Netherlands, Britain, and Ireland (reviewed in 26; see also annual reports from the British Birds Rarities Committee). Several reports of American Golden-Plover in Australia were considered unacceptable (5).

Nature of Migration

Makes lengthy migrations between tundra breeding grounds in North America and grasslands and coastal wetlands on overwintering grounds in South America. Migrations include nonstop overwater flights between the two continents, and refueling stopovers in the Midwestern United States.

Timing and Routes of Migration

There is a lengthy period of fall migration since movements vary with breeding success and juveniles depart considerably later than adults. During this time, the species is widely dispersed as first arrivals on overwintering grounds occur before last departures from tundra breeding grounds. Clay et al. (93) provided an extensive list of Important Bird Areas (global and regional) plus other important sites in North and South America where large numbers of plovers have been reported during spring and fall migrations.

Well known for an elliptical migratory pattern: offshore nonstop trans-Atlantic route in fall, mid-continental flyway in spring (31). Recent tracking using geolocators (J. F. Lamarre, personal communication) substantiated this pattern, and also demonstrated trans-Gulf of Mexico and trans-Caribbean pathways, and supports much of what follows concerning both fall and spring migrations.

Adults begin leaving breeding grounds late June to mid July (probably failed breeders); most depart August. Peak migration of adults in Atlantic Provinces of Canada 26 July–30 August (113). Juveniles linger in northerly regions until late August to early October. Reports of very late November to December transients in eastern North America (especially Florida and coastal states from the Carolinas to Texas) are probably all juveniles (see 99 for summary of records).

Fall migration includes one or more stopovers (Foxe Peninsula; J. F. Lamarre, personal communication), central Canada, southeastern Canada, New England coast) before trans-Atlantic flights to South America (114, 115). Storms may disrupt Atlantic passage, forcing birds to travel along coastline or move inland. Southeastern coast of Beaufort Sea may be an important flyway for American Golden-Plover departing Alaska breeding grounds (116). Latter source also documents eastward and southward migratory movements of shorebird flocks (many were probably American Golden-Plovers) at numerous sites in the Northwest Passage region. Aside from the heavily used trans-Atlantic route, some birds travel southward on inland paths (Missouri, Mississippi, and Ohio river valleys, eastern U.S. and Atlantic seaboard), and make stops along the way. These routes apparently lead to South America via trans-Gulf/Caribbean flights. Small numbers possibly follow Pacific Coast along a flyway presumably extending to South America; these may be from westernmost breeding grounds (see 6 ). Some travel through the intermountain and mountainous West, or fly eastward across the Rocky Mountains (J. F. Lamarre, personal communication) then south via the mid-continent. Records along Pacific Coast ambiguous since Pacific Golden-Plover occurs there and misidentification is possible.

Fall passage through Trinidad, and Tobago, northern South America, not well understood. Reported as uncommon to fairly common transient, some birds apparently lingering for several weeks before continuing southward migration; about 9,000 birds seen in coastal Guyana in early September 1991 (C. Faanes, personal communication). Many birds probably travel well inland before alighting, and some may fly directly to central Brazil. Routes apparently follow north–south river valleys where floodplains (water levels are low at this season), pastures, and similar habitats provide necessary resources. Based on dates of fall sightings, juveniles more likely than adults to island-hop or stop short of South American continent, and passage of juveniles appears to be farther west (consistent with inland pathways through North America) than that of adults. The extensive wetlands in Pantanal region at headwaters of Paraguay River in Brazil likely an important stopover for both adults and juveniles (117, 118). Rate of passage through interior South America unknown. Birds arrive on overwintering grounds from late August to December.

Spring migration begins late January with major exodus in February, stragglers until the end of April (46, 119, 120, 121, 50, 51, 122, 123). Northward movements from South America are along two very different routes, one continental, the other oceanic. The first route is an inland passage during a period that coincides with flooding cycle in Brazil. Flooding makes river-valley habitats used in fall unavailable, thus Antas (117) posited a spring route west of fall route, passing to upper reaches of Amazonian rivers in Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia (this path now confirmed by J. F. Lamarre, personal communication). Birds following the inland route depart northwestern South America, pre-departure staging possibly occurs on high Andean plateaus (“large numbers can be seen around 4,000 m on altiplanos of northwestern Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru in March and April”; 124), and track along coasts of Central America and Mexico or fly directly across Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico en route to U.S. Gulf coast. The second route (trans-Pacific, as revealed by Lamarre’s tracking studies) extends westward from overwintering grounds, crosses the Andes, then arcs northward well offshore, parallels nearly the entire continent of South America, and finally reaches landfall in northern Central America-southern Mexico where the path intersects with birds following the inland route. Howell and Webb (125) report American Golden-Plovers as widely distributed spring transients in Mexico, from interior to Atlantic slope ("major concentrations in central Vera Cruz") and Pacific slope ("from Colima south"). How these observations relate to the two routes just described is unknown. Perhaps plovers on the Pacific slope are mostly trans-Pacific (second route above) migrants. Notably, American Golden-Plovers were not found during 2004–2006 coastal shorebird surveys of northern Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico (126). Records are insufficient to clarify spring passage through states along the U.S. Pacific coast (97, 6, 98).

Migration through U.S. and southern Canada is relatively leisurely and involves stopovers. Timing and other details as compiled from numerous sources (e.g., 127, 128, 22, 129, 130, 88, 131, 132, 133, 134, 135, 136, 137, 138, 139, 140): first arrivals in Texas, Louisiana, and Florida late February to early March, movements continue until May; some birds alight on or near coastline, others may continue farther inland; variable arrival (no doubt influenced by weather) early to late March, with major influx during April over broad region of the Missouri, Mississippi, and Ohio river valleys, primarily from Kansas to Kentucky northward to the Dakotas and southern Minnesota; also a few birds along Atlantic Coast of U.S. and Canada to at least Nova Scotia and in the far west from Nevada and Utah to northern Idaho and western Montana (some of last might be from Pacific flyway and could include Pacific Golden-Plovers; see eBird range map in 16); passage through upper Midwestern U.S. and southern Canada usually peaks early to mid May.

Timing of arrival on breeding grounds influenced by latitude (apparently less influenced by variations in snowmelt at least in High Arctic (141), mostly mid May to early June (57, 142, 44, 143, 144, 145, 37, 146, 141), latest around third week of June in extreme northern part of range on Devon Island, Nunavut (147). Passage along coast of the Beaufort Sea may be a major spring pathway for birds breeding in Alaska (148).

Remaining on overwintering range during the boreal summer is apparently unusual for American Golden-Plover, but a few birds have been reported at various sites in South America including Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay (149). The full extent of this behavior is uncertain. Wetmore (150) noted scattered individuals during the Argentine winter and considered them either "wounded, sterile, or otherwise diseased" or lacking in "physiological incentive" for migration. Studies of Pacific Golden-Plover (in which overwintering is fairly common) support the last alternative and suggest that stragglers in South America represent some fraction of first-year birds that are not yet sexually mature.

As of September 2017, there were 42 recoveries/encounters of banded American Golden-Plovers in files of the U.S. Geological Survey, Bird Banding Laboratory (BBL). Of these, five were over relatively long distances (3,827–8,561 km) consistent with migratory routes described above. Locations and dates (month and year where banded and recovered) were as follows: southern Quebec (Mauricie Region), September 1948–Guyana (near Georgetown), January 1949; northern Illinois (LaSalle County), October 1955–Guadaloupe, September 1958; Victoria Island, Nunavut, July 1960–northeastern Texas (near Pittsburg), March 1962; Barrow, Alaska, June 2009–Aruba, October 2009; Barrow, Alaska, July 2011–Guadaloupe, September 2013. For additional discussion of spring and fall migration, including routes in both North and South America and counts of birds stopping over in various regions, see Clay et al. (93). Efforts to define breeding and overwintering areas using stable isotopes from feather samples were unsuccessful (151).

Migratory Behavior

Very little is known about the behavior of migrant American Golden-Plovers in remote areas such as interior South America and much of Alaska. Movements in North America appear to involve flocks feeding opportunistically, but migratory aggregations also occur in traditional stopover areas (132, 152, 153, 93, 60). Largest known spring aggregations have been documented in northwestern Indiana (Benton and White counties) and adjacent northeastern Illinois (130, 133). In Benton County, yearly surveys around 21 April from 1980–1986 ranged from about 4,000 to over 25,000 birds (154). In Benton and White counties, counts throughout the spring of 1998 indicated at least 42,000 plovers (possibly as many as 84,000) had stopped over amidst the region's agricultural fields (155). This area provides a spring migratory stopover for a period of about 45 d (individuals average 24 d), extensive molting into alternate plumage occurs during this period (also see 14), and birds continuing northward migration typically depart during daylight hours (60).

Old reports (156) of American Golden-Plover fall staging grounds in Labrador and Nova Scotia were widely accepted. However, there is no hard evidence from Labrador (157) and no large concentrations have appeared in Nova Scotia for over a century (88). Either past observations were inaccurate or migratory routes have changed (also see 31). Data from geolocator-equipped plovers suggests that the Foxe Peninsula on Baffin Island is now an important fall staging site (J. F. Lamarre, personal communication). Details concerning pre-migratory behavior of the species in fall remain unreported.

From extensive radar studies in the North American Arctic, altitudes of migrating shorebird flocks (probably including American Golden-Plovers) were commonly around 1 km, often 2–4 km, occasionally > 5 km (158, 159, 116, 160, 161). Highest measured altitude of flocks (likely American Golden-Plovers) were 6 km over the Caribbean (114), and 6.65 km at Nova Scotia (162). Transoceanic navigation may be relatively simple: constant compass heading combined with effects of prevailing winds (114). Only known visual estimates of altitudes for American Golden-Plovers migrating during daylight hours were flocks at about 50 m in east-central Alaska (163).

Control and Physiology of Migration

No information concerning proximate stimuli. No studies of energetics associated with migration and breeding. These elements probably similar to other long-distance migrant shorebirds (e.g., 164, 165, 166, 167, 168, 169, 170, 171), though having a cycle with lengthy continental passages that permit opportunistic and stopover feeding (especially in spring) differs significantly from extreme transoceanic flights like those of Pacific Golden-Plover (172). Notably, many of the American Golden-Plovers sampled during a spring stopover in the Upper Midwest were relatively fat: 126–180 g (14), 147–238 g (60).

Habitat in Breeding Range

American Golden-Plovers nest primarily on arctic and subarctic tundra, sometimes on montane tundra. Distinct difference in topographic and vegetative requirements found where this species is sympatric with Pacific Golden-Plover on Seward Peninsula (37): American Golden-Plovers usually nests in sparse, low vegetation on higher, well-drained, rocky slopes; Pacific Golden-Plovers typically nest in dense vegetation on lower, dry to moist sites with fewer rocks (see Breeding: Nest Site). Occasional reversal of this pattern has occurred at some sites on Seward Peninsula (173; OWJ, unpublished data). Similar rocky, dry tundra nesting places preferred by American Golden-Plover elsewhere (44, 143, 144, 174), but in some areas moist habitat with taller vegetation also used (175, 176, 177, 78). In arctic Alaska, nesting frequency of American Golden-Plovers was slightly greater in the Brooks Range foothills than on the adjacent moist Beaufort Coastal Plain (178).

Habitat in Migration

Birds use variety of inland and coastal habitats, both natural and human-made: native prairie, pastures, tilled farmland, untilled harvested fields, burned fields, mudflats, shorelines, estuaries. Tundra ridges and hillsides blown free of snow are likely important in early spring.

Habitat in the Overwintering Range

American Golden-Plovers overwinter primarily amidst the Rio de la Plata grasslands consisting of pampas in east-central Argentina and campos in Uruguay and southern Brazil. Entire region has been dramatically affected by agricultural development (similar to prairies of North America), and original grasslands greatly reduced (179, 180, 181, 93, 182). Croplands and urban areas are much less suitable for American Golden-Plover than grazed grasslands (183, 184, 185), though this species commonly found in rice fields on South American overwintering range (186; also see Conservation and Management: Effects of Human Activity). Some overwinter on coastal wetlands; many in southern Brazil and Uruguay, fewer in Argentina, very few in Chile (187), in some areas birds foraging along coast during low tides move to uplands with high tides (188).

Historical Changes to the Distribution

Changes are generally associated with human activity. Small numbers of birds overwinter along the northern coast of Brazil (187). Extensive deforestation in Amazonia has produced new habitats for migrating and overwintering American Golden-Plovers (118, 51); the species is “abundant in central Brazil until end of February” (51). Favorable habitats resulting from settlement may account for occasional overwintering in the eastern U.S. (99). Overwintering population on primary range in southern South America is less widely distributed because of habitat loss (93, 183; also see Conservation and Management).

Fossil History

Little is known concerning fossil history of the Charadriidae (189). Bones of “Pluvialis sp.” were found in late Pleistocene cave sediments in northeastern Mexico (190).

Recommended Citation

Johnson, O. W., P. G. Connors, and P. Pyle (2019). American Golden-Plover (Pluvialis dominica), version 3.1. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.