In both appearance and behaviour, the Little Ringed Plover has adapted to the uncertain conditions of dynamic, wild rivers. It is dependent on the open and nearly denuded gravel and sand banks which are constantly being formed and reformed. Breeding birds formerly at home on major rivers such as the Danube, Inn and the Drau have now been almost entirely displaced from their natural habitats by river regulation. In Austria, this pretty wader can now only breed in reduced numbers and in short-term secondary biotopes created by humans – mainly in large gravel pits. The natural river population has shrunk to a small remnant of what it once was. Crown Prince Rudolph wrote, "Little Ringed Plovers are everywhere" on the islands and riverbanks of the Danube wetlands but today, only a few pairs remain in the National Park.
Around the size of a sparrow, both male and female display prominent black markings which form a mask around the eyes as well as rings on the forehead and around the neck. Snow-white rings around the neck, forehead and belly; pale yellow orbital around the eyes. Camouflage colours on the upperparts: back and crown – like the ground upon which the bird most often moves – are buff. Like all species related to plovers (such as lapwings), it has a round head with big eyes, short neck and beak, and middle-long pinkish-grey legs. Very characteristic is the movement made while looking for food: from a horizontal position, the Little Ringed Plover alternates abruptly between quick, "wound-up" running steps and motionless standing in place, as if nailed to the spot. Its pointy wings enable rapid, low-flying flights across water.
The Little Ringed Plover breeds across most of Eurasia, albeit in low density patterns. In Europe, its range spans to the southern areas of Scandinavia to the north, and all the way to Morocco to the south. Frequently seen on the unregulated rivers of North Italy (such as the Tagliamento). In Austria, the Little Ringed Plover's traditional habitat were the riverbanks along the valleys of major rivers, but due to large-scale river regulation, these have become rare and the species must use gravel pits in mining areas as breeding areas. It also breeds in the lower-lying regions of Austria, such as the Vienna Basin, Danube valley, the Traun-Enns area, and the lower reaches of the Salzach, Lafnitz and Mur rivers. The most important of the few remaining natural incidences is on the Lech River in Tyrol. In the Danube wetlands, only a few pairs breed on particularly suitable places such as the larger river islets. Other incidences occur on the March and only occasionally on other major rivers such as the Inn, Drau and Mur. The largest Austrian population lives in what only at first glance appears to be a completely different habitat, namely on the shallow ponds with sparse vegetation in the Seewinkel area in Burgenland.
Endangerment and Conservation Status
Forcing large wild rivers with many branches into uniformly narrow and straight channels with high banks has brought about the destruction of the habitat of river birds on a massive scale. The damage may be counteracted only selectively, at great cost, and on a smaller scale (as for example in the Donau-Auen National Park). Thus the Little Ringed Plover population is endangered in the long term, as the secondary habitats currently used by the species are makeshift and temporary at best. And today, even "natural" flooding poses a problem for the Little Ringed Plover, because breeding is often disturbed by high waters which run more rapidly through the narrow, regulated channels and rise higher. Even though the species is capable of laying up to three (!) new clutches if the original nest of eggs is lost, this is still not enough to compensate. The biggest problem for the remaining breeding population is violation of its habitat by humans (fishermen, bathers, boaters), who unfortunately share the Little Ringed Plover's preference for river islets and large sandbanks.
The Little Ringed Plover returns in March and April after spending winters in Africa. Exactly when and where nesting begins varies, but depends mainly on water levels. Like all waders – including the lapwing, woodcock and the sandpiper – the Little Ringed Plover, who normally mates for life, lays four eggs in a flat hollow on bare gravel. The clutch is protected only by the camouflage effect of the eggs. The trophic strategy utilized is interesting: moving insects are hunted by sight, but other prey are often localised by sound, and worms are driven to leave their mud tunnels by a quick "running-in-place" type movement with the feet..
Like other ground nesters, the Little Ringed Plover defends its clutch with a heroic theatrical performance meant to distract. If a potential ground-living predator such as fox or dog approaches the nest, the female places herself in near proximity to the threat and drags herself, limping sluggishly, crying loudly, dragging her wings and moving away from the nest. Once the would-be predator falls for her feigned display of weakness ("I'm injured and easy prey!") and puts enough distance between himself and the nest, the Little Ringed Plover suddenly takes wing, flies away effortlessly, and the disappointed intruder must leave empty-handed.