Malaysia's Mystery Plover

Cover Photo: Female ‘White-faced’ Plover, 5th February 2007 © David Bakewell

By David Bakewell and Peter Kennerley

Is it possible that a small plover, not described or illustrated in any modern literature or field guide occurs in southeast Asia? This is the question we were faced with following sightings of several small Charadrius plovers in Malaysia and Singapore.
Bakewell and Kennerley

Nape and collar

The white collar appears broader on ‘White-faced’ Plover than on Kentish, but this may be a factor associated with their posture. The brown of the rear crown extends down into the white collar on Kentish, to form a narrow brown point. This is less extensive on ‘White-faced’ Plover. Importantly, ‘White-faced’ Plover lacks the black collar below the white collar which is a feature of male Malaysian Plover throughout the year.

Figure 16. Male ‘White-faced’ Plover (left) with a Kentish Plover, 6th February 2007. Note the more extensive white on the nape of the ‘White-faced’ Plover, which is not bisected by the brown of the rear crown, unlike that of Kentish Plover. David Bakewell

Tail and uppertail-covert pattern

Both taxa show white in the outer tail feathers separated by a dark line formed by the dark brown central rectrices and uppertail-coverts. Photographs of birds in flight show that ‘White-faced’ Plover consistently exhibits more extensive white sides to the tail, although this difference is usually not apparent in field observations.

Figure 17. Male ‘White-faced’ Plover preening, 6th February 2007, showing the extent of white on the outer tail feathers. David Bakewell

Wing pattern

In flight, the difference in upperwing pattern is one of the most distinctive differences between the two taxa.

Kentish Plover

The marginal coverts are dark brown. The lesser and median upperwing-coverts are uniform mid brown, fringed buff-brown. The greater coverts are dark brown, narrowly tipped white, with the possible exception of the outermost feather, which may be entirely dark brown. The greater primary-coverts are dark brown, very narrowly tipped white on the inners. The outer four or five primary coverts are entirely dark, lacking the pale tips.

 The secondaries are dark brown, tipped white. The primaries are dark brown (darker at the tips) with white shaft streaks. The inner four or five primaries have white markings basally, for less than half their visible length which, together with the white tips to the greater coverts, form a relatively narrow wing-bar.

Overall, this creates an upperwing pattern which is rather plain brown, with a thin white central wingbar along the greater coverts and extending onto the inner primaries.

‘White-faced’ Plover

The marginal coverts are mid brown. The lesser and median upperwing-coverts are sandy brown, prominently fringed whitish, darker nearer the body, and becoming progressively paler toward the carpal joint. The outermost median coverts are dark brown, tipped white. The greater coverts are dark brown, quite broadly tipped white, including the outermost feathers. The greater primary-coverts are very dark brown, tipped white, these tips being broadest on the inner covert, and become narrower on the outer coverts.

 The secondaries are dark brown, broadly tipped white. The primaries are dark brown (darker at the tips) with white shaft streaks. The inner five primaries have additional white markings on the outer webs basally, which are broader and more conspicuous than those of Kentish Plover, and on the outermost of these, the white extends for more than half their visible length.

Overall, this creates an upperwing pattern with a high contrast between the pale coverts and dark outer wing. Furthermore, the appearance of the wing pattern of ‘White-faced’ Plover is distinctive, comprising three white bars on the wing; a narrow trailing edge to the secondaries, a conspicuous wing-bar formed by the white greater covert tips and bases to the inner primaries (appearing broader and more prominent than on Kentish), and the white tips to the outer median coverts.

On the underwing, the primaries show a larger translucent area on ‘White-faced’ Plover than Kentish, corresponding to the greater extent of white on the primary bases.

Figure 18. Kentish Plover, Penang, 21st November 2006. Compared with the ‘White-faced’ Plover in figure 19, this Kentish Plover shows a more restricted extent of white on the wing. David Bakewell

Figure 19. Presumed male ‘White-faced’ Plover, Penang, 24th November 2006. This bird shows the distinctive upperwing pattern of ‘White-faced’ Plover. David Bakewell

Figure 20. Male ‘White-faced’ Plover in flight (left) with a Kentish Plover. Compared with Kentish Plover, this ‘White-faced’ Plover shows a more extensive and conspicuous white wing bar, particularly across the inner primaries and a broader white trailing edge to the secondaries. Also note the more conspicuous white sides to the tail. Taken Feb 5th 2007. David Bakewell

Figure 21. Male ‘White-faced’ Plover in flight, showing the distinctive wing and tail pattern. 6th February 2007. David Bakewell

This distinctive upperwing pattern makes it quite easy to differentiate between ‘White-faced’ and Kentish Plovers when a mixed flock takes flight. However, this juvenile Kentish Plover, photographed in September at Beidaihe, Hebei province, China, shows a wing pattern remarkably similar to that of ‘White-faced’ Plover, so care is required.


Leg colouration differs significantly between ‘White-faced’ and Kentish Plovers.

Kentish Plover<

Invariably dark, although appears grey or even slightly bluish-grey in strong light. At times, however, especially when the sun is high overhead, leg colour is difficult to discern with certainty. Note that some Kentish Plovers may show pale legs, either as a result of staining or genuine colour variation. See Oriental Birding

‘White-faced’ Plover

Pale, considered to be pinkish or flesh-coloured in strong light. In this respect closely resembles leg colour of Malaysian Plover.

Figure 22. Female ‘White-faced’ Plover (right) alongside a female Kentish Plover at the high tide roost. Penang, 5th February 2007. David Bakewell

Bill shape and colour

Although there is individual variation in the bill shape and structure of both Kentish and ‘White-faced’ Plovers, all birds show a slight difference in bill shape, although this was visible only at close range.

Kentish Plover

The bill tapers evenly from base to just before tip. The tip shows a culmenary ‘bulge’ covering about a third of the total culmen length. The bill tip is quite sharply pointed.

‘White-faced’ Plover

The bill tapers less obviously than Kentish, appearing more parallel-edged and ‘tubular’ than Kentish. The tip shows a culmenary ‘bulge’ covering between a third and a half of the total culmen length. The bill tip appears quite blunt, especially when the bird turns slightly away from the observer. This difference in bill shape is quite apparent when both species were together, even at range. At a distance, ‘White-faced’ Plover appears to have a thicker bill than Kentish, especially towards the tip. When seen head-on, the bill of ‘White-faced’ appears noticeably broad-based. At very close range the extreme base of the lower mandible of ‘White-faced’ Plover can be seen to be yellowish, whereas on Kentish it is entirely dark.

Figure 23. Presumed male ‘White-faced’ Plover photographed at Penang on 24th November 2006. Same individual as in image 19. The bill structure is well-depicted in this photograph. Note the pale base to the lower mandible. David Bakewell

Figure 24. Comparison of head shape and bill structure between ‘White-faced’ Plovers (two right images) and Kentish Plover. Penang, 24th November 2006.  Besides the overall more robust appearance of ‘White-faced’ Plover, it also appears to exhibit a larger eye. David Bakewell

Breeding Plumage

In breeding plumage, ‘White-faced’ Plover is exceptionally distinctive, particularly the ‘white-faced’ appearance of the males.


Kentish Plover

Remain mid brown and closely resemble the non-breeding plumage.

‘White-faced’ Plover

A mixture of retained, worn mantle feathers and scapulars, and fresh replacement feathers is visible after the pre-breeding moult. The fresh feathers are slightly darker than the older, bleached feathers, but are otherwise very similar in colour. Consequently, the upperparts remain pale sandy-brown, and distinctly paler than those of Kentish Plover. The mantle of one particular male ‘White-faced’ was paler and greyer than the rest of the upperparts.

Figure 25. The brightest and most well-marked of the three male ‘White-faced’ Plovers following moult into breeding plumage, Penang, 5th February 2007. Note the leg length and colour, and the isolated dark alula on the otherwise pale closed wing. David Bakewell

Figure 25a. This male ‘White-faced’ Plover, together with a Red-necked Stint, was  photographed at Penang on 5th February 2007. The poorly developed frontal bar and an extensive area of white behind the eye further enhanced the white-faced appearance of this individual. Additionally, the lateral breast patches are poorly developed. It is thought that this may be a male in first-summer plumage.