Great Lakes Piping Plovers
The Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) is a small shorebird - bigger than a Chickadee, smaller than a Robin. They are dry-sand colored on the back and white below. During the breeding season adults have a black forehead band between the eyes and a single black band around the neck. The legs are orange. During breeding season the base of the black bill also turns orange.
Piping Plover - Breeding female
Its larger, more vocal relative, the Killdeer, is commonly seen at parks, playgrounds, and golf courses, as well as on beaches, and has two dark bands around the neck. In the Great Lakes Piping Plovers nest only on Great Lake beaches and prefer wide beaches with pebbles.
The other shorebird that breeds on Great Lakes Beaches is the Spotted Sandpiper. It has a much smaller head and longer neck than a Piping Plover and, as you might expect, a heavily spotted breast (though juveniles lack those spots). From a great distance Spotted Sandpipers can be recognised by their habit of constantly bobbing their tails up and down. Even the tiny chicks show this bobbing behavior.
Other species of shorebird migrate through the Great Lakes during May-June and again during July-September. Some can be mistaken for Piping Plovers.
The Semipalmated Plover looks very much like a Piping Plover in size, shape and behaviors. However it is much darker. The back is a rich, dark chocolate brown and the eye is entirely enclosed in a black mask.
Semipalmated Plover - breeding adult
Semipalmated Plover - juvenile
Sanderlings can be light-colored like Piping Plovers, but they move quite differently, running up and down the beach with the waves and pecking constantly in the sand. Piping Plovers have a run-stop-run-stop pattern to their movements while feeding. Sanderlings also have smaller heads and longer, thinner bills. Adults have varying amounts of rust-color and juveniles have a black and white checkered look to their backs.
Sanderling - Juvenile
Sanderling - Breeding Adult
Other small shorebirds that migrate through the Great Lakes regularly are seldom mistaken for Piping Plovers. Here are pictures of a few of them.
On the wintering grounds Piping Plovers can be confused with Snowy Plovers. Note the leg color: Orange for Piping Plovers, gray for Snowy Plovers.
Snowy Plover - Basic (Non-breeding) plumage