7 Sep 2020

Introducing our new Spring Alive species: the Common Ringed Plover

As birds migrate from Europe to their wintering grounds in Africa, we explore the fascinating behaviour of the Common Ringed Plover, a small but feisty wader familiar across Africa’s wetlands.

The Common Ringed Plover weights only 64 grams, but migrates thousands of kilometres © Zeynel Cebeci
Common Ringed Plovers weigh only 64 grams, but migrate thousands of kilometres © Zeynel Cebeci
By Jessica Law

This article is part of our Spring Alive programme, which aims inspire and educate children across Africa and Eurasia about the wonders of nature and bird migration. The 2020 Spring Alive season is made possible with the support of HeidelbergCement

 

Have you ever looked at a migratory bird and imagined where it came from, and all the places it passed through to get to where it is here, today? Have you ever thought about all the different people of different nationalities who have observed and appreciated this bird before you? In 2020, most of us have experienced more restrictions on our lives and movements than ever before due to the coronavirus pandemic. Throughout this time, birds have never been a more powerful symbol of connectivity. Unlike us, they are still free to cross national borders, oceans and continents, and by appreciating their journey and the nations we share them with, they unite us despite everything.

During this difficult time, countless people have turned to nature as a source of comfort and solace. With our 2020 theme “how to be a good birdwatcher”, Spring Alive has guided budding birdwatchers along the right path, promoting best-practice guidelines to ensure an enjoyable, safe and bird-friendly experience. And though public events have been cancelled and schools closed, we’ve still been hard at work online, sharing nature-themed educational activities to keep children interested and engaged.

But 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.

Watch the Common Ringed Plover perform its uncanny "foot-trembling" feeding behaviour

 

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.

The plover is an ambassador for Africa's threatened wetlands © Ghana Wildlife Society

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.

"Ghana has a number of wetlands, but unfortunately, these wetlands are seen as wastelands, leading to encroachment. It is thus important to raise awareness about these sites, restore and rehabilitate them,” says Louisa Kabobah, Conservation Education officer at Ghana Wildlife Society (BirdLife Partner).

We hope this brave, feisty little bird will become an ambassador for wetland conservation, helping to raise awareness and support for these vital habitats.

 

Find out more at springalive.net