Swinhoe’s (White-faced) Plovers

When Dave Bakewell and Peter Kennerley published an article on Surfbirds called “Malaysia’s Mystery Plover” back in December 2007, it caused quite a stir in the birding community.  Was it really possible that a small plover, not described in any modern literature, was living on the beaches of southeast Asia?

The so-called “White-faced Plover” (Charadrius alexandrinus dealbatus) was first described as distinct from Kentish Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus) by the great ornithologist, Robert Swinhoe, in 1870, hence the preferred usage of the name “Swinhoe’s Plover” (used in this post).

The great Robert Swinhoe (1836-1877). This photo was taken in 1863.

However, despite Swinhoe’s observations, dealbatus seems to have been ‘lost’ due to confusion about the characteristics of this form, and it has not been represented in modern field guides.  Here is an extract from a paper published in November 2011 (see reference at end of post):

“Over the past few decades, most authorities have followed Hartert & Jackson in recognizing dealbatus as a wide-ranging but morphologically indistinct East Asian subspecies of the Kentish Plover. Only recently, field observations of unusual, distinctly pale-colored plovers in the wintering grounds of the Malayan Peninsula led to the recognition that the original description of dealbatus referred to a distinctly different plover that has been overlooked for more than a century. Its name has been misapplied to birds that largely fall within the range of variation of nominate alexandrinus. True dealbatus are now known to differ not only in their much paler overall plumage, but also in important details of facial coloration in breeding plumage and a range of other traits.”

Considering this form had been ‘lost’ for many decades, Dave and Peter did an exceptional job in picking out these birds, studying them and communicating their findings to the wider birding community, causing much renewed interest in these charismatic birds and speculation that they may deserve full species status.  At the time, only wintering birds had been seen and, although some of these birds attained breeding plumage on the study grounds in Singapore and Malaysia, they soon disappeared in Spring and there was only speculation as to where the breeding grounds might be.

Following publication of Dave and Peter’s article, Chinese/HK birders reported breeding Swinhoe’s Plovers on the beaches of Fujian Province in 2008.  Later, one of my friends and fellow China-based British birder, Brian Jones, moved from Beijing to Shenzhen in 2011 and soon began to explore the coast nearby.  It wasn’t long before Brian discovered some ‘strange Kentish Plovers’ breeding on sandy beaches at Dahu, Haifeng.  Having taken some images, Dave and Peter soon confirmed that Brian had stumbled on a breeding site for Swinhoe’s Plover on China’s southern coast.. On just two beaches, Brian found around 270 of these ‘rediscovered’ birds, many with young.  They have since been found at several sites in southern and southeastern China, and are now known to breed from Hainan to Fujian Province.

One fortunate coincidence for any birders going to see Chinese Crested Terns near Fuzhou is that several pairs of these plovers breed on the beaches nearby. During my visit last week we counted 5 pairs along a small stretch of beach..  the real number breeding there is surely much higher.  This was my first opportunity to see this distinctive bird and I was pleased to see the presence of advanced juveniles, as well as males and females.  Here are a few images:

Swinhoe’s Plover (male), near Fuzhou, Fujian Province, July 2012.  Note the pale lores, pale legs and the ‘milky tea’ colour of the upperparts.
Swinhoe’s Plover (male), near Fuzhou, Fujian Province, July 2012
Swinhoe’s Plover (worn male). Note the extensive white on the inner primaries.
Swinhoe’s Plover (worn male). Note the extensive white in the tail and the relatively prominent wingbar.
Swinhoe’s Plover (female), near Fuzhou, Fujian Province, July 2012

Of course, there is a question as to whether or not these birds are a separate species.  They are certainly distinct – longer, paler legs, more white on the face, more white in the wing etc (see Dave and Peter’s article for the full suite of features) – but initial studies of DNA (taken from museum specimens) have shown that they are not distinct enough to warrant separate species status.  This is the relevant passage from the recent study:

“The most likely conclusion of our data is that the White-faced Plover is probably a young lineage whose phenotypic traits are encoded by a limited number of genes, whereas few additional genomic differences have so far accumulated. Its diagnostic plumage traits may additionally be governed by differences in gene expression that would be undetectable by sequence analysis.”

In short, initial research suggests that “Swinhoe’s Plover” is probably a subspecies of Kentish Plover.  However, further research is ongoing.  This spring and summer Jonathan Martinez, in collaboration with Professor Fasheng Zou from the South China Endangered Animals Institute, has been ringing, colour-flagging and taking blood samples from birds on China’s southern coast.  Analysis of the DNA taken from these live birds is expected soon, although it is unlikely to return different results.  Here are some images of one of the birds being colour-flagged.  If you see any of these birds this autumn/winter, Jonathan would be delighted to hear from you and can be contacted via this blog.

One of the Swinhoe’s Plovers colour-flagged by Jonathan Martinez and Professor Fasheng Zou. If you are in East/Southeast Asia this autumn/winter, look out for flagged birds!
The same bird in the field, Guangdong Province, China.

To me, it matters little whether or not the Swinhoe’s Plover is a species or a subspecies..  it is a beautiful and charismatic bird that is a joy to watch.  It is clearly very limited in its distribution and it must, therefore, be (another!) priority for conservation.

Many thanks to Dave Bakewell, Peter Kennerley, Jonathan Martinez and Brian Jones for providing information and images included in this blog post.

Quotations above taken from:

Rheindt FE, Székely T, Edwards SV, Lee PLM, Burke T, et al. (2011) Conflict between Genetic and Phenotypic Differentiation: The Evolutionary History of a ‘Lost and Rediscovered’ Shorebird. PLoS ONE 6(11): e26995. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0026995

Over 250 White-faced (Swinhoe’s) Plovers in Guangdong Province, China

Following Brian Jones’s extraordinary find of breeding White-faced (Swinhoe’s) Plovers in Guangdong Province (reported here last week), Brian returned last weekend to do a detailed count.  His total from just two beaches on the south coast was an astonishing 279 birds, easily eclipsing the previous highest count of 14.

Brian reports… (all photos by Brian Jones)

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I spent my second weekend at the two White-faced (Swinhoe’s) Plover breeding sites.  Saturday was bright sunshine and hot but no thunderstorms.  This time I managed to navigate my way from Shanghaizai village to the beach, about 1km to the south, without getting lost.  I walked east to the end of the beach before beginning my count but it was immediately apparent that there were many new arrivals amongst the Plover.  Many of these new birds appeared to have moulted more recently, having a fresher plumage, and I wondered if they had arrived from more southerly wintering grounds.

My head count along the approx. 3.5kms beach was 148 White-faced Plover.  This total consisted of approximately 60+ pairs, two young, and seven possible first summer birds.  There were several small groups of two males chasing a female as well as several females together, seemingly aggressively defending territory.  I saw several courtship rituals with females being chased first on the ground, then briefly in the air, repeated several times before on two occasions mating took place.  Two early breeding pairs had young.  The parents were very obviously in “decoy mode” so I kept well clear so as not to disturb them.  Happily two chicks showed themselves about 30ms away on a sand dune.

On Sunday I did a count on Dahu beach (approx. 4.5kms), which is my regular haunt.  It was very overcast and misty so the light was pretty awful but, despite the dull conditions and the disturbance from itinerant fishermen and dogs, I was pleasantly surprised to find 131 White-faced Plover.  This beach has less cover for the birds to nest, apart from one area where there is mangrove scrub growing at the back of the beach.

Finally if one supposes that there are other beaches along the south coast of China holding White-faced Plovers, it would mean the population is much greater than previously assumed, but where are these birds wintering?

I will provide an update after next weekend’s findings and the Hong Kong Birdwatching Society is organising a visit to the site with me over the second weekend of June, so we should be able to get more data with more feet on the ground.

Brian Jones 

Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, China

White-faced Plover, Guangdong Province, China
White-faced Plover, Guangdong Province, China
Juvenile White-faced Plover, Guangdong Province, China
Young White-faced Plover, Guangdong Province, China

White-faced Plovers breeding in Guangdong Province, China

It was with some excitement that Brian Jones (a guest blogger on Birding Beijing) sent me a SMS at the weekend saying that he thought he had discovered some breeding White-faced (Swinhoe’s) Plovers in Guangdong Province, southern China…

The White-faced Plover has only recently been (re-) discovered after many years.  See here and here.

Here is Brian’s story….

WHITE-FACED (SWINHOE’S) PLOVER, Aegialites (Charadrius) dealbatus. A new breeding ground in Guangdong Province, South China.

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I arrived in Shenzhen at the end of January having previously lived in Beijing for three years.  Since then most weekends I have been “blitzing” a location south of Haifeng (Dahu) which is about two and a half hours by bus east of Shenzhen.  This is my normal habit of birding which I have found pays dividends in the long run.  The site has already produced some wonderful birds during the Spring migration, especially waders including both Nordmann’s (Spotted) Greenshank and Asian Dowitcher.  This time of the year the Terns begin to arrive so I have been keeping a weather-eye on a sandspit that seems to be favoured by the birds.  But it is over 500ms from the Dahu shore, so I decided to try a new location hoping to be able to approach the Terns more closely.

I decided to stay in Lufeng a town of similar size about 50mins to the east of Haifeng.  I arrived on Friday evening in good time and located a palatial hotel opposite the bus station which was twice as expensive as my normal W/E hotel in Haifeng.  However it did have very impressive Corinthian columns and a mighty bas-relief behind the front desk! The following morning I headed off to a small village, Shanghaizai about 20mins by scooter-cab south of the town, which looked quite close to the Tern sandspit.  However my navigation went sadly awry and, after walking for some time, I ended up two hours later on the wrong peninsular.  A peninsular, I might add, with no seabirds at all. However all was not lost as a few minutes later a fisherman chugged past who very kindly agreed to ferry me over the water for a small consideration which he was very reluctant to accept.

When I disembarked I estimated I was about 3.5kms down the beach from the sandspit so I set off  at a leisurely pace.  I soon began to notice a number of pairs of odd looking “Kentish Plover”. These birds were greyer and paler, with pale pinkish grey legs, long tarsi, strong beak, wide and longish white supercilium.  The females were much whiter around the eye and the males had a short black patch at the shoulder and a very steep forehead.  I suspected that these birds might be White-faced Plover which I have never seen but I did had some field notes with me which I used for comparison.  After having watched at least 15 pairs I was fairly sure they were indeed W-F Pls which made the location extremely important as I knew of no other site in China where they bred in such numbers.  I was also very excited because I knew I had seen a larger number of “Kentish Plovers” on the Dahu beach and had been confused to find KPs breeding so far south.  I intend to check out the Dahu birds this W/E.

Yesterday I emailed photos to Peter Ericsson in Thailand as I knew he was very familiar with wintering birds and he immediately confirmed the ID.  Since then Peter has contacted David Bakewell and I have sent details to Peter Kennerley, both of whom worked on the important early paper about these “lost” birds.

Martin Hale a friend from Hong Kong had asked me to keep an eye out for W-F Pls a week ago as he hasn’t seen them before so it was coincidental that I found the birds a few days later.

I intend to alter all my June birdwatching plans as I want to monitor both sites during the breeding period.  Dahu beach has more problems for the birds as they are putting in sewers which involves a bulldozer, there are also a number of itinerant fishermen living on the beach along with their dogs so egg stealing could be a problem.  But there are very few Gulls present which is a bonus .  The other beach is practically deserted and I only found four small boys playing so there are no immediate threats to the birds nesting habits.

A very exciting but exhausting day which involved about 16-18kms of walking on sandy beaches but what a day.

Brian Jones

Shenzhen, China

White-faced (Swinhoe's) Plover, Guangdong Province, China, May 2011
White-faced (Swinhoe's) Plover, Guangdong Province, China, May 2011
White-faced (Swinhoe's) Plover, Guangdong Province, China, May 2011