The Black-bellied Plover, known as the Gray Plover in the Old World, breeds widely in the high Arctic of North America and Eurasia and overwinters over a broad latitudinal range—equally at home in temperate and tropical climates, it is truly one of the most wide-ranging shorebird species. Within North America, the species breeds from western Alaska through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and overwinters along the Gulf, Atlantic, and Pacific coasts as far north as British Columbia and Massachusetts. During spring and fall migration it is locally common on all three coasts of North America, as well as the Great Plains, although less common elsewhere across the continent. This species overwinters as far north as any plover, perhaps aided by its large size and ability to employ different feeding strategies (favorable for thermoregulation and use of a diverse prey base).
On its overwintering 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 in freshwater and upland habitats. Individuals may defend winter territories or roam widely. Polychaetes and small bivalves are most frequently taken by the species, but its diet is varied. Its large eyes are adapted to nocturnal foraging, which is common.
The Black-bellied Plover breeds in both dry and wet tundra with abundant lichens, herbs, and low shrubs. Aerial displays and vocalizations are used by males to mark large nesting territories, which are defended against conspecifics as well as golden-plovers. 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 high flight speed. Wary and quick to give alarm calls, the Black-bellied Plover functions worldwide as a sentinel for mixed-species assemblages of shorebirds. These qualities allowed it to resist market hunters, and it remained common when species of similar size were decimated by shooting during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Many aspects of the nonbreeding ecology of this species have been well studied in Europe, but are relatively little studied in North America. In contrast, studies of breeding biology are mostly from North America, particularly recent (1997–2007) comprehensive surveys of breeding habitat and population numbers across Alaska and arctic Canada (Bart and Johnston 2012). Together, these studies provide a fairly comprehensive portrait of this largest and widest-ranging of the marine plovers that in many ways is a model for studies of other shorebird species.