“The mystique of birding” — a leg band found at Milford Point reveals the oldest known Black-bellied Plover in the Western Hemisphere
November 14, 2023—By any account, it was a good day of mid-October birding at the Milford Point Coastal Center for Chris Unsworth: 50 species and almost 600 individual birds. But it was one bird that he didn’t see—or rather, didn’t see alive—that made the day special.
That bird was a Black-bellied Plover, which Chris found dead among the tide wrack. This otherwise ordinary discovery set in motion a series of emails and record-checking that revealed an amazing fact.
The Black-bellied Plover was at least 14 years old, the oldest on record in the Western Hemisphere.
Black-bellied Plovers are common at Milford Point and elsewhere. Chris saw 25 of them that day, October 19. They are also among the most common shorebirds on the East Coast and it’s likely that other Black-bellied Plovers have lived longer.
But there’s no record of any bird of that species in the Western Hemisphere being older.
Chris lives in Cheshire and was a member of the Coastal Center’s regional board of directors about 20 years ago. He described what happened that day: “I was walking back from the outer sandbar, back from the tip, and I wandered over to the lagoon side to take a look at some ducks. I noticed on the tide line what looked like a bird among the stuff that had been washed up.”
He turned it over with his foot, noted that the bird felt water-logged but that it hadn’t started to decompose and that it had yet to be found by scavengers. There was a band wrapped around one of its legs. The light wasn’t great, so he removed the band, took it home, and sent the information to the U.S. Geological Service, which keeps bird banding records.
The USGS encourages people to send in information from bird bands, and it responds by sending back whatever other information it has about the bird. In this case, it had been banded in October 2010, at Short Beach, Stratford, about a mile across the Housatonic River, and had hatched in 2009 or earlier.
Black-bellied Plovers spend much of the year on the east and west coasts of North America and along the Gulf Coast, poking and probing along the mudflats and tidal zones for invertebrates to eat. They migrate each spring and fall to and from their breeding grounds in the Arctic.
When Chris Unsworth heard back from the USGS, he forwarded the information to us.
“It struck me that a 14-year-old bird is pretty old,” he said. “It says something for that site that it can return for 14 years.”
Several people who are connected to Connecticut Audubon have federal bird banding licenses. I asked Milan Bull, our senior director of science and conservation, if he had any idea who might have banded the Black-bellied Plover at Short Beach in 2009. Min Huang, he said.
Min, the Migratory Bird Program leader for the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, confirmed that he had banded the bird that Chris found.
Meanwhile, I checked Birdsoftheworld.org, the encyclopedia of scientific bird knowledge published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It reported that the oldest known Black-bellied Plover in the world was a 20-year-old bird in Europe, and that oldest on record in the Western Hemisphere was 12 years, 7 months—almost two years younger than the bird Chris found.
I emailed the USGS bird banding lab to double-check whether they had a record of an older bird; maybe one had been reported after the Birds Of The World account had last been updated. About a week later the lab replied:
“This does look like it will be the oldest Black-bellied Plover in our database. The longevity records get updated a few times a year and this one will be added to the list for the next update. You can view the existing longevity records in our database here: https://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/BBL/Bander_Portal/login/Longevity_main.php”
As we mentioned, there is one major caveat. The oldest Black-bellied Plover on record is almost certainly not the oldest Black-bellied Plover ever. Many birds are banded but the bands are never recovered. And most birds are never banded and no one has any idea how old they are.
But the cycles of migration that started in the Arctic and were recorded at Short Beach in October 2009 are now closed with the reappearance of the bird in the same area in 2023. It’s one data point, one more piece of evidence of the ecological importance of the Coastal Center region.
Or as Chris Unsworth said it, “It’s part of the mystique of birding.”
— by Tom Andersen Communications Director