This medium-sized plover, slightly smaller than a pigeon, is a northern breeder which visits Iberia in large numbers in winter. Unlike many other wading birds, Golden Plovers prefer dry, open grasslands so are commonest in the ‘steppe’ country of Alentejo province where flocks of over a thousand birds can sometimes be seen, often in the company of Lapwings. Smaller numbers occur in agricultural areas in the Algarve, such as the hinterland of Cape St. Vincent, and on other dry coastal fringes, like the sandy barrier island of Barril near Tavira.
The uniform, gold-spangled winter plumage seen here is transformed into a striking breeding dress with most of the underparts becoming black. Some of the migrants crossing from North Africa in spring, on their way to Iceland, the British Isles and Scandinavia, will be so attired. Seeing and hearing these stunning birds displaying over the moorlands of North Yorkshire, their fluting ‘song’ so evocative of the north, is a treasured boyhood memory but, sadly, British populations have declined as a result of afforestation of their habitat in the uplands, increased disturbance from hikers, bikers and hang-gliders and, most recently, ill-sited wind farms.
Like other moorland and tundra-breeding waders, Golden Plovers now face the additional threat of global warming. Their breeding cycle is timed to coincide with the emergence of insects, like crane flies, to feed their young but they may not be able to adapt quickly enough to the increasingly early availability of this vital food supply.
The Golden Plover has only three close relatives in the world, all of which exhibit similar seasonal plumage changes. The slightly larger Grey Plover is a common winter visitor from the high Arctic to shores and estuaries from north-west Europe to the Mediterranean and the tropics. Smaller kin, formerly known as ‘Lesser Golden Plover’, have now been split into separate American and Pacific species, but both are great global travellers and can occur almost anywhere. On one occasion, on the island of Santa Maria in the Azores, I was able to obtain a unique photograph of all four species together.