RSPB Conservation Scientist Alison Beresford is on the trail of the elusive dotterel.

I would walk 500 miles… the search for dotterel continues

“So, what, you just walk about until you find one?”

“Well, pretty much, yes.”

“And then what?”

“And then the waiting begins…”

I’m never quite sure what to say when people ask me what I do.  When I try to explain my particular line of employment, the response is usually interest, followed by confusion, followed by a slow backing away as they come to realise that I spend all day by myself wandering in zig-zags across open mountain tops, looking for birds.

I walk, I stop, I scan, I walk, I stop, I scan… the average encounter rate for montane surveys is about 1 bird an hour, and that’s any bird, not just dotterel!  Often, the first you’ll see of a dotterel will be a curious head peeking over the horizon, or maybe just a tell-tale white eye-stripe amongst the vegetation.  If it’s not too windy you might hear their faint calls, described in the books as a repeated, song-like “pwit”, but to me, they sound more like a squeaky bike wheel.

Photo: Mark Eaton

But wait, what’s that I see on the horizon?  A shape has caught my eye.  I lift my binoculars to have a closer look.  Is that a dotterel head I see?  No… it’s a rock.  Nine times out of ten, the thing that’s caught my eye is a rock.  Sometimes it’s a piece of old fence post, sometimes a bit of vegetation moving in the wind, sometimes it might even be a Golden plover, but sometimes, just sometimes, it’s a dotterel… and then the waiting begins.  Invariably, by the time I’ve seen it, it’s seen me (I am, after all, considerably larger and far more conspicuous than a dotterel – I think this gives them an unfair advantage!).  So there’s nothing to do but retreat, wait, watch and hope that the bird will eventually give away its nest.

Dotterel are unusual in that in almost all cases, the male alone is responsible for incubation and parental care, whilst the female moves on to mate with other males.  80-90% of females that lay a clutch for a male in Scotland will then continue on to Scandinavia or Russia to look for further nesting opportunities.  Dotterel nests are little more than a scrape on the ground, sometimes lined with a few bits of lichen for insulation, and it’s surprising just how well camouflaged the males are when they settle down.  The first eggs are usually laid around the end of May, but the late snow on higher sites this year means that many of the birds have been a little slower than usual in getting started.  The males incubate the clutch (usually 3 eggs) for 24-28 days, with hatching timed to coincide with peak emergence of the crane fly Tipula Montana, an important food source.  It’s a real challenge and a fine balance for the males to continually keep eggs warm whilst also finding enough food to sustain themselves in this cold environment.  I can’t help but be strangely impressed by the exposed and windswept places in which these birds choose to breed. 

 Find out more about our work with dotterel here.

Read Alison's previous blog on dotterel surveys here.