How to Identify the Snowy Plover

Identify Snowy Plover

The plover family includes at least two dozen species worldwide that are small with a single black ring, partial or full, from the sides of the neck through the chest. Most are brown-backed – the color of wet mud – but a few are much paler, the color of dry sand. North America has two species of lesser pale-backed plovers in this group. The piping plover attracts the most attention because it is an endangered species that is found near major human population centers. The snowy plover, a more widespread bird, is more often ignored.

Indeed, the Snowy Plover is easy to ignore. It is the smallest North American plover (half the mass of an American Robin) and one of the simplest. Adult males in breeding plumage show a black forehead bar, dark cheeks, and a black mark on each side of the neck; these markings are less distinct in adult females and absent in juveniles and winter birds. Snowy Plovers are also stealthy because they tend to stand still or move slowly and hesitantly when humans are near. Their pale, dull color blends well with their usual environment. Their callnotes are mostly soft and the birds are often silent.

Listen to the sounds of the Snowy Plover

It is interesting to compare the breeding grounds of the Snowy Plover and the Piping Plover. Both nest on sandy beaches along the coast and in some open situations in the interior, such as salt flats around salt lakes, river sandbars, and lake beaches. But there is very little overlap between them. Snowy Plovers nest along the Pacific Coast from Washington State to Baja, and along the Gulf Coast from Texas to West Florida. Piping Plovers breed along the Atlantic coast from eastern Canada to the Carolinas. In the interior, Snowy Plovers are widespread around salt lakes in the west and southern Great Plains, while Piping Plovers nest around the Great Lakes and in the northern Great Plains. Both species are present during the breeding season in parts of eastern Colorado, but elsewhere they almost seem to be mutually exclusive. The best region to compare the two is along the Gulf Coast in winter, where both are regularly seen on the same beaches.

At any time of the year, the best distinctions between the Snowy Plover and the Piping Plover are in the beak and legs, not aspects of the plumage. The Snowy Plover’s beak is straight, slender and fairly short. The Piping Plover’s bill is shorter and noticeably thicker, a very different overall shape. Snowy’s beak is always black, but Piping has the basal half of the beak orange during the breeding season and often retains some orange at the base in winter. The Snowy Plover has slightly longer legs than the Piping Plover, varying from pinkish gray to dark gray, while the Piping Plover’s legs are orange. Beware, however, that any shorebird can have its legs discolored by mud, so leg color is not always reliable.


What to look for

Size. The smallest North American plover, about the size of a sparrow.

See also  David Sibley looks at American Avocets

General color. Pale brownish-grey on back, wings and top of head, white underparts, narrow pale collar on hind neck.

Bill. Short, straight and thin, and always plain black.

Legs. May appear to have thinner and slightly longer legs than other small plovers. The color varies from pale gray or pinkish gray to dark gray.


Breeding plumage. In spring and summer, males have a black forehead bar, dark cheeks, and a black mark on the side of the neck. Females have duller markings on average.

Snowy plover.  Photo by Brian E. SmallSnowy plover, non-breeding. October in Los Angeles County, California. Photo by Brian E. Small

Snowy Plovers look dull like this for at least half the year, from early fall to early spring. The narrow pale borders on the feathers of the upperparts of this bird would indicate a juvenile if it had been photographed in summer; but by October many adults will have moulted into cool winter plumage and may show a similar pale border, so aging these birds can be difficult. To identify them to species, focus on the structure, especially the shape of the beak. The very slender bill of the Snowy Plover distinguishes it from Piping and Semipalmated Plovers (and especially Wilson’s Thick-billed Plover). The Snowy Plover often looks very slender and its legs vary from pinkish gray to dark gray.

Piping Plover.  Photo by Brian E. SmallPiping Plover, winter adult. February in Lee County, Florida. Photo by Brian E. Small

Our other Pale-backed Plover, the Piping Plover, overlaps with the Snowy Plover primarily on the Gulf Coast in winter and the southern Great Plains on migration. Vagrants of either species can complicate the picture elsewhere. The shape of the beak is the best distinction: the piping plover’s beak is both shorter and thicker, creating a different impression. Its beak is half orange during the breeding season, and even in winter many individuals show a touch of orange at the base, while Snowy’s beak is always black. The orange legs of the Piping Plover are usually clearly visible. The piping is also slightly bigger and rounder, but Snowy can look just as round when he fluffs up his feathers.

Snowy plover.  Photo by Brian E. SmallSnowy plover, winter. November in Los Angeles County, California. Photo by Brian E. Small

Back color is a tricky ground mark for small plovers. They may appear lighter or darker, grayer or browner, depending on the lighting. This Snowy Plover was photographed from a low angle, giving it a warmer, more brownish appearance on the upperparts. Snowy Plovers along the Gulf Coast may on average look slightly paler than those farther west (at one time they were considered a separate subspecies), but the difference is not apparent on the ground. The semipalmated plover, our most common lesser plover, appears noticeably darker than the snowy plover in direct comparison, but on a solitary bird in strange light the difference may not be obvious, making other field markings ( like the shape of the beak and the color of the legs) more important.

See also  How Bird Appearance Can Be Deceiving

Mountain plover.  Photo by Brian E. SmallMountain plover, winter. January in Imperial County, California. Photo by Brian E. Small

Not a mountain bird, the Mountain Plover is also not usually found at the water’s edge, but in the dry, short-grass plains of the west. Snowy Plovers in the same region live on open salt plains, often far from water. Their habitats don’t usually overlap, but it’s worth comparing them. The Mountain Plover is a larger bird, but its very thin bill suggests that of the Snowy Plover, and its size can be difficult to assess on a solitary bird. It is also a warmer tan color on the upper parts, but lighting can affect our color perception. When in doubt, look for a pale brown wash forward on the front of the neck and no pale collar on the back of the neck.

Classification and conservation

For many years, the bird we know as the Snowy Plover in the Americas was thought to be the same species as the bird called the Piping Plover in Europe, Asia and North Africa (named after the county of Kent in England, where it once nested). This issue of separate names became an advantage in 2011, when these populations were formally split into two species, and no change to their English names was required.

Although the Western Hemisphere and Eastern Hemisphere forms look alike, they have different voices, and DNA analysis confirms their separate status. They also give subtly different impressions on the pitch. On the one hand, Horned Plovers often seem more sociable or more common where they are found. Along the coast of China, I have seen loose flocks of dozens or even hundreds of Kentish plovers. In North America, I rarely see concentrations of more than a few Snowy Plovers.


The Snowy Plover is a less numerous bird overall. Exact numbers are not known, but the global Piping Plover population could be over 300,000. The Snowy Plover population may be a tenth of that number, or around 30,000 or less. The split of the two has highlighted a conservation issue: no longer part of a common global species, the snowy plover is now listed as Near Threatened. The protection of coastal nesting sites, already underway in some places, will become increasingly important in the future.

This article first appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of BirdWatching magazine.