April target bird: Little Ringed Plover

Little Ringed Plover can be seen at many wetland sites around the country, including Seaforth, Lancashire. Photo by Steve Young (www.birdsonfilm.com).
Little Ringed Plover can be seen at many wetland sites around the country, including Seaforth, Lancashire. Photo by Steve Young (www.birdsonfilm.com).
This delightful small wader is one of the earliest spring migrants to return to Britain, and in recent years it has become a familiar sight at many gravel pits and reservoirs.

The species breeds across the Palearctic region from Britain to Japan, from as far north as Siberia south to North Africa, India, South-East Asia, the Philippines and New Guinea. The Palearctic subspecies curonicus is migratory and winters in Africa, Arabia, China and Indonesia. European birds spend the winter mainly in Africa, south of the Sahara, reaching as far as Senegal and Kenya, with some also in the Mediterranean and North Africa. Two other subspecies, both resident, are jerdoni, found in India and South-East Asia, and dubius, found from the Philippines, south to New Guinea. It is a vagrant to Australia and North America.

Little Ringed Plover expanded into north-west Europe in the 1930s, taking advantage of the proliferation of sand and gravel extraction, which provided perfect breeding habitat. While it still primarily uses these, it also breeds on river shingle, especially in Wales. As its numbers have increased, so it has extended its range north and west across Britain.

Originally a rare visitor to Britain, Little Ringed Plover first bred at Tring Reservoirs, Hertfordshire, in 1938. Since when numbers have increased steadily, reaching 467 pairs in 1973 and 608-631 pairs by 1984. A 2007 survey showed 891 pairs, mainly in England, but also in Wales and Scotland, and there may now be as many as 1,000 pairs in Britain.

It is still an uncommon visitor to Scotland, with an average of about 10 records annually, mostly along the east coast and in the central lowlands. Pairs have bred there recently, with 16 found in 2007. In Ireland it is an almost annual visitor to south and east coasts. In 2006, a pair reportedly bred in Co Cork, while a pair also bred in Co Tipperary in 2008.

Migration from Africa to Europe in spring is on a broad front, and migrants start to arrive in England from mid-March onwards. They appear later in Scotland, where the peak is mid-May, and the individuals involved might be Scandinavian breeding birds, rather than British.

The species nests on the ground so is especially vulnerable to
disturbance. Photo: Han Bouwmeester (www.agami.nl).

The species begins to leave its British breeding areas from late July and most birds have left for their wintering grounds by mid-September, with few sightings into October. British birds head south, but Scandinavian ones may head more south-east and are thought to winter in the Persian Gulf or East Africa. They begin to arrive in tropical Africa from late August onwards.

Unlike many other waders Little Ringed Plover does not form flocks, travelling singly or in small groups of just a few birds. Sometimes called Little Plover, it is more commonly referred to by the initials 'LRP' by many birders. As a rare breeding bird, it is protected under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act. The many threats to the species include disturbance from activities at working gravel pits, but also from visiting anglers and birdwatchers. If birds are seen in suitable habitat, then birders should ensure they do not go close to nesting areas as predators could easily raid a nest if parent birds are scared away.

How to find
In spring, when the birds arrive, they can be noisy and obvious, displaying with slow wing-flapping over a breeding area before settling to nest. Look along the edges of pools, or on flat areas of gravel near the water. Keep searching as they can stand motionless and be very hard to locate.