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Fascinating behaviour of the Common Ringed Plover

2020.09.04
Fascinating behaviour of the Common ...
The Common Ringed Plover - this highly social wader collects in flocks of at least 50, courtesy of Clive Timmons
While life has lost its variety for many of us, the natural world is always changing. It’s now getting to the time of year when Europe says goodbye to the migratory birds it has cherished throughout the spring and summer, and wishes them safe passage to Africa. As African bird lovers eagerly await the influx of new arrivals, we’d like to introduce this year’s brand new Spring Alive species: the Common Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula.
We chose this small, adorable wader in order to expand the Spring Alive world to an exciting new habitat: wetlands. The iconic species can be easily spotted along coastlines, marshes, rivers and lakes throughout Southern Africa – in fact, you may well have seen it already. But you might not be aware of the fascinating and fearless behaviours that are packed into this tiny but feisty bird. Here are just a few things to look out for as you venture out on your next birdwatching trip.
One of the most distinctive quirks you may notice about this bird is its robotic, hyperactive feeding style, constantly scurrying around and then stopping abruptly like a demented clockwork toy. But there’s method in the madness: the species feeds on insects, crustaceans and worms scattered across the shoreline. To pick off prey on the surface, it uses its excellent eyesight, standing stock still and watching for signs of movement, then quickly running forward and pecking, before screeching to a halt and watching again. To get at worms underground, it deploys an even more ingenious technique called “foot-trembling”. Standing on one leg, it taps the other foot rapidly on the mud, imitating rainfall and encouraging the moisture-loving worms to slither to the surface.
But you’re not going to see just one Common Ringed Plover. Oh, no. This highly social wader collects in flocks of at least 50 – but sometimes as many as 1,500 birds. It gets even more impressive when you realise that they’ve travelled thousands of kilometres from their breeding sites along the Arctic coast, northern Europe and Canada, to overwinter in southern Africa. Which makes it all the more important not to disturb them when you’re birdwatching – because they’re recovering from a pretty packed schedule.
The adventure starts in spring at their breeding grounds, where they lay up to four eggs in a very shallow “scrape” on the shoreline. A paragon of gender equality, both parents have similar plumage and split incubation duties equally, fiercely defending the nest from interlopers. If the threat gets too great, they have another, more risky trick up their sleeves – they will feign a broken wing, staggering in the opposite direction to lead predators away from the nest.
So now you can see that, while wetlands may look like a huge empty expanse of mud, they’re filled with drama and intrigue. They’re also a lifeline for the birds that call them home. Sadly, some people don’t see it that way. The Common Ringed Plover’s population is declining due to wetlands being polluted or drained to make way for agriculture – a common theme on every step of its migratory journey.
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