Alistair Baxter is completing a PhD investigating the reasons behind Dotterel declines in Scotland. Read on to find out more about his exciting work...
Dotterel declines in Scotland: Out of sight out of mind?
Over the last thirty years, National Surveys led by the RSPB and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) have revealed dramatic declines in dotterel numbers across the UK. The most marked results have been the total disappearance of breeding dotterel from England, Wales, and many previously good breeding sites in Scotland. I am undertaking a PhD, aimed at identifying the factors leading to dotterel declines in Scotland over the last thirty years. It is easy to ignore bird species we rarely see or that are difficult to study, but I hope my work can shed some light on the reasons for declines in the dotterel and other montane bird species suffering a similar fate. Hopefully this project will be the catalyst to increasing interest and research in the uplands and I hope you enjoy reading about my experiences with dotterel and other montane bird species along the way.
Female dotterel singing on an early Cairngorm's morning.
Here’s a bit of background on all things dotterel (Charadrius morinellus for those who collect fancy Latin names). Dotterel are extremely charismatic migratory plovers (wading birds) not much bigger than a blackbird. They arrive into the UK in late March-early April from North Africa having spent the winter months basking in the Atlas Mountains and gorging themselves in preparation for their strenuous summer schedule. Some of these birds will choose to settle and breed in montane areas of Scotland, however; the main bulk will pass through the UK onto the main European breeding grounds in Norway. Dotterel can be seen on passage, most notably on several sites in East Anglia. Unfortunately, for those of you with memories long enough to recall commonly sighting large flocks (‘trips’), these occurrences are now few and far between; with dotterel declines in Norway thought to be at least as severe as those recorded in the UK.
Very snowy Cairngorms welcome the start of the field season.
After arriving in Scotland, dotterel head for mountain plateaus above 700m in altitude where they are to be found breeding until mid-August. Whatever the reasons for dotterel choosing to breed and spend their summers in some of the most inhospitable areas of the UK, this provides a researcher and outdoor enthusiast with the mouth-watering opportunity to carry out fieldwork in some truly breathtaking mountain surroundings!
A nice bright female dotterel.
The first fieldwork day dawned early and, through my inexperienced eyes, it was far too cold, misty, and ‘dreich’ for fieldwork....apparently not! I would soon find out this is actually an above average summer’s day on the Scottish tops. Unperturbed, James Gordon (my RSPB Research Assistant), Dr. Steven Ewing (RSPB supervisor), and I headed up one of the study sites I would be collecting the bulk of my data and intensively surveying over the next three field seasons. Predictably, having spent the previous month carrying out capercaillie surveys for the RSPB, James set the pace and as I puffed, cursed, and panted behind him I began to realise why the montane regions of Scotland remain so under-studied. However, as we emerged over the last rise, we were surrounded by mist and stood on a dense moss carpet which blanketed much of the summit plateau the effort became totally worthwhile and I felt privileged to have the chance to spend so much time in such a place.
With dotterel habitat use and habitat changes the particular focus of this first year, we spent most of the day on hands and knees rooting around in moss and heather and discussing teething issues with what I thought I’d so elegantly (if not slightly optimistically) planned in my office in Aberdeen. The following inevitable scaling back of my grand plans also seemed a feature of the first few days as the realisation of scale in mountain fieldwork became apparent. Despite all the changes in plans, still revelling at the possibility of effectively living in the mountains for the next four months I felt it had been an incredibly productive first day. There was however still time to see the bird I’d be studying for the next three years and a distinctive metallic “peep” had us all scanning the horizon. A bright female stood seemingly unafraid only 40m away. Partly because of their tame nature (defence mechanism to draw predators away from eggs/chicks), the gaelic name for dotterel is 'amadan-mòintich' meaning ‘fool of the moor’; presumably due the ease with which they could be caught/hunted. Despite this, dotterel can in fact be incredibly inconspicuous and not least when incubating eggs; you can walk within a metre of some incubating males and be none the wiser. It is fortunate the Scottish summer days are so long as locating dotterel, let alone incubating male dotterel, can be a time consuming and patience testing business. I have of course been lucky enough to see dotterel almost every day since and as a result of the obligatory eight to ten miles walk each day and five Munros (3000ft hills) a week the fieldwork has thankfully got a lot easier.
Incubating male dotterel- notice how dull it is compared with the female in the first photo.
Much of this year’s fieldwork is repeating ecology studies carried out during the 1980s by SNH. By re-assessing habitat availability, habitat quality, and invertebrate abundance we hope to see if changes in these factors have caused the declines in dotterel numbers since the 1980s. Even after a difficult start to this season, with huge amounts of snow and sub-zero temperatures in May, the dotterel have begun to breed (better late than never!) and we are currently monitoring 11 nests across three sites. We focus nest searching on areas where only single male dotterel are present as this is taken as strong evidence of breeding. Unusually for a bird species it is only the males that incubate chicks. In fact, although on some sites females will contribute to incubating eggs there are no published records of females helping to rear chicks and they will usually leave the male about a day after laying the whole clutch of speckled brown eggs.
Male dotterel brooding three chicks.
Over the last three days we have had the first chicks of the season hatch and it seems all the nest finding effort early in the season is coming to fruition. The mountains seem thriving with life at the moment and I’ve found it amazing to see how the tops change over the dotterel breeding season, with dull grey moss turning to the deep pinky red of bilberry and the rich green of three-leaved rush. The birds are also at their noisiest and most vibrant at this time of year, with chicks of Golden plover, dunlin, and ptarmigan well on their way to fledging, parents are busy feeding hungry mouths and warding off those who get too close.
A “loafing” Ptarmigan – I’ve never seen a bird species that spends so much time sitting down!
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my first instalment of this blog and I’ll bring you an update of how the remainder of this first field season panned out in August. Until then, keep your fingers crossed the stay at home dotterel dads are working as hard as we are, if so we’ll soon have juvenile dotterel on the wing and preparing for the long migration South!
All photos by Alistair Baxter.
Conservation Manager, Stuart Benn, is back with a new blog...
Torn Between Two Plovers
Isn’t this weather just absolutely gorgeous?
It’s well overdue after that long, cold spring and a long, cold drink and a barbecue has sometimes felt like the best way to spend the day or at least the evening.
But here in North Scotland, we know that such good spells don’t last forever and we need to make the most of them by getting out and about – nature responds to the sunshine too and looks its best.
So, last week saw me heading up into the hills to do my dotterel survey. Alistair blogged recently about the work he’s doing on the birds but he can’t be everywhere at once so he has a team of volunteers to help him cover other sites and that’s where I come in.
First up on the tops were a couple of noisy golden plovers peeping away – the first of many during the day. To me, GPs always look a wee bit portly as if they’re carrying a couple of extra pounds but maybe not as much as shown in this painting by Magnus Kjartansson, an Icelandic artist.
There’s something about it I really like though the significance of the couple (bride and groom?) standing on the plover’s back accompanied by swans and a sheep playing trumpets is a bit lost on me!
Except when they are on eggs, golden plovers are amongst the most showy and noisy of hill birds and you’ll soon know if they’re about. Not so its cousin, the dotterel – unassuming might be the word for them. Smaller, slimmer, better camouflaged, quieter – it can take more effort to find one but it’s really worth it when you do, there are few more stunning birds in the UK and a day with dotterel is always one to remember.
So, I was really thrilled to find two dotterels with chicks on different parts of the hill. Unusually for birds, it’s the male dotterel that sits on the eggs and cares for the young so he is the dowdier of the pair but he’s still a splendid sight!
As with other waders, dotterel chicks can leave the nest practically as soon as they are out the egg and can run about shortly afterwards - the ones I saw could fair sprint away despite just being a few days old. Look how camouflaged it is – all that chick needs to do is crouch down and he would disappear from view quicker than the latest reality tv ‘sensation’.
I came down into the sunset aglow from my plover-filled day glad that I’d put the temptation of another burger and G&T to one side and made just that wee bit of effort to get out and enjoy nature while the sun shone.
It’s not an Illusion
A wee girl clings on to the side of a house – HEEEEELLLLLLP!!!
I dangle from a window ledge.
But, don’t worry, it’s not as alarming as it looks – the whole thing is an illusion, part of an interactive piece of art in London that I went to when I was down south last week. The ‘house’ lies flat and an angled mirror tilted above makes horizontals appear vertical.
A lot of people insist that they don’t like art – it’s all fusty old galleries and long-dead painters. But that’s preconceptions for you - the day I was at the exhibit it was absolutely mobbed – all ages, all nationalities, all sorts of folk were there having a great time, enjoying art, having fun!!
And after they’d had a crawl over the ‘house’ many of the families went just round the corner to the Dalston Eastern Curve Garden where kids (and adults!) can run around and touch flowers and hear the buzz of bees – a space to breathe surrounded by nature. As with art, many people have preconceptions about nature – it’s boring, not for the likes of me, what’s the point of it. But those enjoying themselves in that little oasis in the middle of London gave the lie to that - this was nature as fun, nature as part of their lives, nature as a necessity, not something that just happens somewhere else or on the telly.
Participation has been a theme this week. One year on from the Olympics the talk at the Anniversary Games was about the legacy. Did people just enjoy watching the sport or did they feel sufficiently motivated to get up and take part themselves?
And participation is important - just as there are loads of reasons why being active in sport is good for you the same holds true for nature: physical and mental health, social skills, a sense of wellbeing, the satisfaction of achievement, to name just a few. But, unfortunately, just as these benefits become more apparent, as a nation we participate less. Children now spend a fraction of their time outside compared to when I was little and, consequently, are far more familiar with brand names and logos than common flowers and birds.
And, unfortunately, this disconnection from nature isn’t an illusion which can be put right simply by tilting a mirror, it’s real.
The cost to ourselves and to nature of allowing this disconnection to continue is too great so the RSPB and others are taking this fight on. When I was south I also saw some great presentations on work the RSPB is doing with the University of Essex and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation to measure children’s connection with nature and how to increase it - really exciting work and I’ll come back to it once the report has been published in the autumn.
In the meantime, we can all do this wee survey and see how connected we are with nature in our gardens, our communities, the countryside. Maybe it’s lots or maybe it’s not as much as we thought or maybe you are still to discover what you can do for nature and nature can do for you.