Conservation Manager Stuart Benn has been out searching for dotterel.

Is Seeing Believing?

A couple of times recently in Scottish Nature Notes, Alison has blogged about her work in the hills on dotterel.  Last year, I helped out with looking at some areas for the national survey and, although the final results have yet to come in, the word on the street is that numbers are a fair bit down.  However, it is known that the number of dotterel that come here each year varies depending on weather conditions and the like, so some hills are being resurveyed just to make sure that 2011 wasn’t totally unusual.

So, last week I parked at the Drumochter Pass on the boundary between Highland and Perthshire, and took to the hills.  Years ago I’d seen dotterel with chicks up here so I had high hopes that I would bump into some.  The first excitement was seeing a young Golden eagle beating across the hill (within sight and sound of the busiest road in the Highlands!) but it didn’t stop despite there being lots of Mountain hares which scurried off as I passed them (a friend of mine said that ‘a hare running always looked like the wheels were about to come off’ and that is about right though it’s deceptive as they really can shift).  Since an eagle has eyesight twice as good as we do, I’m sure it saw them too but didn’t have enough of an element of surprise to have a go at catching any – why waste energy if the chances of success are so slim?

Up on the tops there were plenty of peeping Golden plovers, still quite a few dunlin and a group of nine very well camouflaged ptarmigan (two females and some youngsters, I think).

However, there wasn’t even a sniff of a dotterel.  But does that mean there weren’t any there?  Dotterel are amongst the hardest birds to survey – they’re not as noisy as plovers and they are probably even better camouflaged than ptarmigan so it is very easy to walk right by them and not even know they are there.  So, I can’t be certain that they’d gone but the chances are that they have as this seems to be happening on many hills particularly the lower ones.  This is precisely what you would expect of a hill bird in a warming climate – they get pushed higher until they run out of hill and are lost.  Which is why Alison’s work is so important – we need to find out what is going on and then try to put it right.