Dotterels were once encountered widely across Britain. They bred across upland England and Scotland and large flocks would appear on migration, mostly in areas of Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire. Some of the flocks, or ‘trips’, numbered hundreds.
They were persecuted for sport, for their plumage – their feathers were prized by fishermen for making trout flies – and were also sought after by egg collectors and taxidermists. Hunters would look for them at their traditional stopping-off places on the Yorkshire coast. The Dotterel Inn, where hunters would stay, still exists near Filey, while other traditional stopping places led to the naming of two Dotterel Halls in Cambridgeshire and a Dotterel Farm in North Yorkshire. A hunter could expect to shoot 50 pairs in a season.
Dotterel is a tame bird which will often allow very close approach. The scientific name Charadrius morinellus reflects this unworldly and unhealthy attitude towards people – morinellus means ‘little fool’. The intensity of hunting pressure, coupled with the ease with which the bird could be taken, led to a steep decline during the 19th century. However, breeding numbers in Britain have grown significantly in the last 50 years.
In the 1930s there was an estimated 50 breeding pairs, which may have doubled by the 1960s. This then grew to a high of about 1,000 pairs by the late 1980s, followed by another decline to about 800 pairs in 1999. Dotterels breed across Europe and Asia, and the British breeding population is at the westernmost edge of the species’ range. In Europe most birds are found in Scandinavia, but a few breed further south in the Pyrenées and Apennines. Most British Dotterels breed in Scotland, with occasional nesting in England.
While the plumage differences between male and female Dotterel have long been appreciated, their reversed role in the breeding season was only suspected in the 1860s. The fact that the brighter female leaves the incubation and care of young to the male was not confirmed by observation until the 1920s, and even then many were sceptical.
Perhaps even stranger is the way that some move between breeding sites at the start of the breeding season, with males which fail to breed often moving on to a completely new location to try again. One Scottish bird actually relocated to Norway in the same season, while another male bred in Norway one year and Scotland the next. Females leave the breeding area soon after handing over parental responsibilities to the males, and they too may move elsewhere to lay another clutch with an unmated male.
Some are seen on passage in spring at traditional areas, but there are few south-coast records as many of the birds fly directly to their breeding grounds, with the earliest arrivals usually at the beginning of May. The spring groups normally number from two to 20 birds, but larger trips are occasionally seen in upland areas of England, especially in May. Glaisdale Moor, Yorkshire, had 52 in 1984, 44 were seen on Pendle Hill, Lancashire, in 1987, 42 were at Five Pikes, Durham, in 1988 and, in 1997, an amazing 121 were seen near Harrogate, Yorkshire.
In summer birds are confined to the high tops of Scotland’s mountains, especially the Grampians. Care should always be taken when birding in Dotterel breeding areas as this species is protected under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act – it is illegal to disturb them at or near the nest. In autumn, Dotterels seem to travel mostly on their own and it is unusual to see them in groups. They usually start to appear in the last week or so of August and can be found almost anywhere. They are most regular along the east and south coasts of Britain, but are rare in Ireland. They can be seen throughout September, and by October they start to become scarcer. In recent years there have been individuals found with European Golden Plover flocks in winter, especially in Cambridgeshire.
Winter is spent mostly in North Africa and the Middle East, although some do winter in Spain. British ringing recoveries have largely been in Morocco. Most depart from their winter quarters in late February-March.
How to find
In spring, it is worth looking for Dotterels from about mid-April though until the end of May. The best areas to look are the traditional stopping-off places in Cambridgeshire, Yorkshire and Lancashire. These vary from lowland agricultural fields and grassland to heaths and hill-top moorland. Open fields with crops like peas are worth searching, but these colourful birds can be surprisingly difficult to see in furrowed fields.
When they do stop off on passage they will often hang around for several days. With the recent increase in numbers, birds are starting to be seen again in areas where they had become rare, such as parts of North Yorkshire.
In autumn, check open grassy areas – coastal sand dunes, airstrips and golf courses. In October it is worth scanning flocks of European Golden Plovers as late individuals are often found in their company.
Where to find
Here is a selection of traditional Dotterel sites which are worth checking in spring. Note, however, that birds are not necessarily seen at them each year.
- Cambridgeshire: Chatteris/Ramsey (Black Bush) (TL 250940)
- Nottinghamshire: Gringley Carr (SK 723922)
- Lancashire: Pendle Hill (SD 797418)
- Yorkshire: Ingleborough (SD 741745) and Danby Beacon (NZ 736092)
- Carmarthenshire: Garreg Lwyd (SN 740180)
- Conwy: Great Orme (SH 760835)
- Anglesey: South Stack RSPB (SH 215803)
- Aberdeenshire: St Combs (NK 055630)
- Ayr: Blackcraig Hill (NS 648064)
- Clyde: Tinto (NS 952343)
- Lothian: Carnethy Hill (NT 203619)
- Borders: Cramalt Craig (NT 168247)