By Charlotte Owen
At this time of year, the golden plover tones down its yellow-spangled breeding plumage and moults into a more subtle mottled brown, its striking black chest fading to a wintry white. The birds are still speckled with gold but their pattern is now muted; instead of trying to stand out from the crowd, they are now doing their best to blend in.
There is safety in numbers and ‘goldies’ descend from their upland breeding grounds to form large winter flocks in sheltered spots along the coast and on grassland and farmland. Here, they attempt to blend in with the surrounding vegetation to avoid attracting the attention of peregrines and other predators. Where the risk is high they will spend most of the day simply standing and watching, keeping an anxious eye out for danger. If the nervous flock senses a threat, either real or imagined, the birds will lift up in a sudden ‘dread’ to fly in swirling, tight-knit formation. They speed across the landscape and wheel around multiple times before eventually re-settling themselves on the ground, satisfied that the threat has passed. If they are feeling safe enough they will busily forage for earthworms, grubs and beetles during the day but they are often most active after dark, especially under a full moon.
Because of the timing of their arrival here in the lowlands, goldies are strongly associated with autumn and its blustery bad weather. The word ‘plover’ is specifically linked to rain, from the French pluvier and the Latin ploviarius, and according to folklore they can bring storms and predict the weather, with their sudden disappearance signalling a hard frost to come. Their impressive speed also attracted attention and the golden plover is widely credited as the inspiration for the Guinness Book of Records. In the 1950s, Sir Hugh Beaver, managing director of the Guinness Brewery, found himself engaged in heated debate over just how fast a golden plover could fly. At the time, there was no way of knowing for certain and this inspired Sir Hugh to commission a definitive book of facts to settle such arguments once and for all – and it became a near-instant best seller.