Identified by their upright stance, scurrying running movements across mudflats and pastures, and distinctive black and golden breeding plumage, golden plovers are resident in the UK all year round, with numbers increasing dramatically in winter with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of migratory birds from northern Europe.
Golden plovers have two distinct plumages: during breeding and non-breeding seasons. In summer their gold and black colouring makes them easy to identify, while in winter, they moult into an altogether duller and less remarkable plumage.
Male golden plovers have a bold black face, throat, breast and belly, surrounded by a wide white band which separates their golden speckled crown, nape, and upper wings. Their underwings are white, and their tail is speckled with the same golden brown and yellow flecked markings. Their legs are greenish-grey, and their eyes are dark brown, while their black bill is fairly short and slim.
During the breeding season, female golden plovers resemble males but may have less extensively black markings, which can have a brownish tinge on their face and underparts.
Non-breeding adult golden plovers lose their bold black markings on their face and underparts. Their upperparts become less distinctly spotted, turning a buff-yellowish colour, with an overall greyish wash to their breast and belly.
Juvenile golden plovers look the same as non-breeding adults but have lighter grey fringes to the feathers on their flanks and belly.
Golden Plover in nest habitat
Golden plovers are stocky, compact, and classed as medium-sized wading birds.
Males and females are the same size, falling into the measurement range below:
Close up of a Golden Plover
The most commonly heard call of a golden plover is a monotone ‘puuuu’ whistle, heard while foraging for food but not on breeding grounds.
During breeding, the usual call of male golden plovers is a double-note ‘puuuu-wheeeuw’ sound, which can be heard until late summer.
Golden Plover calling to its mate
Golden plovers find food by probing beneath up to 2 cm beneath the earth’s surface, for earthworms, as well as on the ground for beetles, larvae, snails and millipedes.
They also eat some plant matter, including berries, seeds and grass. They feed at night, as well as during the day, and are thought to rely on sound as well as sight to detect food.
The diet of newly hatched golden plovers consists primarily of crane flies and their larvae, while older chicks aged from 16 days upwards continue to eat crane fly larvae, but also eat a wider variety of larger invertebrates including beetles, spiders and caterpillars.
Golden Plover foraging for food
Breeding grounds of golden plovers are typically found in tundra landscapes, as well as bogs, heathlands and peat-rich areas. In winter, agricultural pastures attract large flocks of golden plovers, as well as salt marshes, mudflats and estuaries.
The breeding range of golden plovers extends from Iceland and the British Isles in the west, across northern Europe and into Siberia in the east. In winter, their range reaches from Britain and northern France throughout the Mediterranean and North African coasts as far west as the Caspian Sea.
Iceland has a large population of golden plovers, with an estimated breeding population of up to 89,000 pairs in 2014. Population estimates from the 1980s show Sweden, Norway and Finland to also have among the largest European breeding populations, with Britain, the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark being the leading winter destinations for migrating golden plovers.
Golden Plovers in their natural habitat
Around 32,500 to 50,500 pairs of golden plovers breed in the UK each year, and their numbers increase to 410,000 birds during winter when joined by migrants from northern Europe.
Sightings reach a peak between November and February when they gather in large flocks of up to tens of thousands.
In summer you’re most likely to spot golden plovers in upland moorlands in the Highlands of Scotland, as well as throughout the Western and Northern Isles. They also breed in the Peak District, North Yorkshire and parts of Wales and Devon.
In winter, your chances of a sighting increase with the influx of hundreds of thousands of migrating birds, and a shift to lower ground. Winter flocks can be seen throughout the UK, particularly between November and February.
Golden Plover on moorland
Records show that the oldest golden plover reached 12 years, but a lifespan of around 4 years is far more common for the species. Breeding occurs for the first time at 2 years.
Stoats and weasels are common predators of the nests and young of golden plovers, with other opportunistic mammals such as badgers, hedgehogs, and foxes also posing some threat. The cryptic markings of adult birds offer some camouflage against predation, although hunting by birds of prey is not uncommon.
The Wildlife and Countryside Act, of 1991, protects golden plovers from being intentionally killed, injured, or taken into captivity.
In the UK, golden plovers are rated as a species of least concern, although noticeable declines in numbers have been recorded in parts of Europe in recent decades.
Golden Plover nesting
Golden plovers are ground nesters, laying their eggs in a shallow scrape in the ground.
The male builds the nest, using moss, leaves and other plant material to line the depression, which is typically situated in a flat, open area with some low-level vegetation. They are solitary and territorial when breeding, but feed in flocks away from their nest sites, taking turns to incubate while the off-duty parent feeds.
Golden plovers lay between 2 and 5 eggs, which can vary from olive green to reddish brown or cream in colour. Eggs are heavily streaked with brown-black markings, and measure 52·1 mm by 35·5 mm (2.1 in by 1.4 in). Incubation lasts for 27 to 31 days and is shared between males and females.
Golden plovers form long-term pair bonds which frequently do last for more than one season.
Golden Plover nest with four eggs inside
Golden plovers are known to be territorial in defense of their nest sites but feed together in relatively small flocks during the breeding season.
Once breeding is finished, they gather in much larger flocks, sometimes with up to tens of thousands of birds foraging together. Some aggression may be shown to other nearby species when their nest site is considered to be under threat.
Golden Plover preening during wintertime
Golden plovers are migratory in parts of their range but are resident in some regions where winter temperatures do not drop too dramatically.
Migration is strongly tied to climate, and occasionally flocks of golden plovers will arrive in wintering grounds only to move on again if the conditions there plunge below zero degrees.
The UK population of golden plovers are partially migratory, and remain within the British Isles all year round, but may temporarily shift to lower ground when winter approaches.
The native population of up to 50,500 birds is joined by wintering birds from Iceland and northern Scandinavia once temperatures there become too harsh to survive.
Golden Plover in flight
Golden plovers are edible, although it’s not a very common choice as meat, and is something of an acquired taste.
Golden plovers are classed as game birds and can be hunted for sport in the UK at certain times of the year. Hunting is particularly common in France.
Golden plovers are listed under Schedule 2 Part 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985, which means they can be legally shot and killed during the open season, which lasts from September 1 to January 31.
European Golden Plover, European Golden-Plover, Eurasian Golden Plover
26cm to 29cm
67cm to 76cm
140g to 312g
Once a fairly common breeding bird across southern England, the Kentish plover is a rare and sporadic visitor to the UK, with sightings most commonly reported during spring and autumn migrations.
Frequently seen running along the shore in a stop/start fashion, the Ringed Plover is a plump but neatly marked wader of coastlines and inland waterways.
Little Ringed Plover
Feisty shorebirds, little ringed plovers can be spotted in the UK in summer months, actively foraging around the edges of gravel pits and reservoirs. But they arent around for long by late summer, migration to their wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa is underway.
With glossy green plumage and an extravagant crest, the Lapwing is an eye-catching wader of marsh and pasture.
Grey plovers are winter visitors to North America, where they are commonly known as black-bellied plovers. Also found on the beaches and muddy estuaries along the coast of Britain, they are an easily identified species of wading bird, with an unusually wide distribution range that encompasses six continents.
Brighten up your inbox with our exclusive newsletter, enjoyed by thousands of people from around the world.