I must admit that when I first saw the Mountain Plovers I reported on Antelope Island State Park I knew exactly what I was looking at because I had dreamed of seeing Mountain Plovers and had studied their appearance in every guidebook and app that I own. Even though I was looking at a tiny bird that was about a football field and a half away in distance and the light on the bird was bad, I knew I was seeing a bird I had longed to see.
But there are a few similar species that occur in Utah and surrounding states that could be confused with Mountain Plovers. Killdeer look similar but there are some key ID features that help with identification. Killdeer have very dark breast bands, a red orbital ring around very dark eyes, a black collar that encircles the neck, a dark cheek patch (auriculars), brownish upper parts, white belly and a brownish crown.
Mountain Plovers lack the double breast bands, the red orbital ring around the eyes, light colored auriculars, sandy brown upper parts, a black line that runs from the bill to the eyes in breeding plumage, black crown with a white forehead and a pale belly. Mountain Plovers also lack the double breast band that is unique to Killdeer.
Both birds do have thin, black bills.
It would be easy to see the differences between a Mountain Plover and a Black-bellied Plover in breeding plumage but at long distances Black-bellied Plovers in nonbreeding plumage could possibly be mistaken for Mountain Plovers. Black-bellied Plovers are larger but at a distance that would be hard to see.
Black-bellied Plovers have a thicker, longer bill than Mountain Plovers do. They have checkered upper parts, darker legs and their chest can have streaks on it. Their bodies also appear more rounded than Mountain Plovers.
It always helps to have high quality images to use in making ID’s but there are times that is not possible and at that point any photo is better than none. It would also help to make notes on the size, shape, color, behavior and other ID keys such as size of the bill, plumage patterns, leg length and color and more.
Recently on the ABA Rare Bird Alert Facebook page there was a possible Mountain Plover reported in Jasper County, South Carolina that had an interesting discussion on the reported sighting where the ID has been decided that is was an American Golden Plover. The sighting was posted on April 16th but photographed the same day as I photographed the pair I found on Antelope Island, Utah. I found the discussion interesting.
Bird identification can be fun and very challenging, sometime more challenging than not.