Although population numbers are in decline in recent decades, several hundred pairs of dotterels descend on mountainous plateaus in the Scottish Highlands to breed each spring. They are notoriously tame, fearless birds that make their nests on the ground on rocky uplands.
20cm to 22cm
57cm to 64cm
90g to 145g
Dotterels are unusual among bird species as females have a distinctly more colourful plumage than males. The colouration of both sexes changes from summer to winter, when it becomes harder to distinguish between males and females. Males and females both have a slim dark bill, brown eyes, and yellow legs.
Breeding males have buff-brown upperparts, separated from a chestnut belly with a white band across the chest. They have a dark cap, white feathers around their beak and throat, and a marked white eyestripe. Outside of breeding season, their coloration becomes more muted, and the white is not as bright.
Female dotterels have more vibrant colouring than males. Their heads and upperparts are a rich shade of grey, rather than brown, and all of their markings are brighter and deeper than those of males, including the thick white eyestripe.
They have a deep black crown and narrow band of black at the base of their belly. Non-breeding females’ plumage lacks the bright chestnut colouring seen in spring and summer, and their appearance becomes generally less striking.
Adult Male Dotterel
Hatchlings weigh around 11 g (0.4 oz) and quickly develop a blotchy plumage, marked with white, buff and black patches. As they near maturity, young dotterels have slightly darker, richer colouring than non-breeding adults, with more contrast between greyish upperparts and buff underparts, and the fringes of their wings and tail may appear streaked with darker feathers.
Dotterels are medium-sized wading birds, smaller than lapwings and oystercatchers, and similar in size to sandpipers, sanderlings and turnstones.
Dotterels are not known to be particularly vocal birds, especially in winter months. In summer, they can occasionally be heard making a soft, trilling ‘skeer’ call on take-off.
Juvenile Eurasian Dotterel calling
Dotterels forage on heathlands, farmlands, and marshlands for insects (particularly beetles), spiders, larvae, worms and sometimes shellfish. Occasionally, they supplement their diet with leaves and berries. In Scotland, sawflies form a major component of a dotterel’s diet.
Dotterel chicks are fed the same diet as adults, although in the early days they eat fewer beetles and more larvae and worms.
Close up of a juvenile Dotterel eating an insect
The winter habitat of dotterels is semi-desert, stony steppe lands and ploughed farmlands. In summer, dotterels head for expanses of open uplands, with moss, lichen, short grass, or exposed rocky landscapes. Mountain plateaus and Arctic tundra offer ideal breeding grounds for dotterels, before they return to their wintering territories.
The UK breeding grounds form the westernmost fringe of the dotterel’s range, which extends across Scandinavia into Russia, as far east as Siberia, Mongolia and into China. Wintering populations extend from southern Spain into North Africa and eastwards into western Iran.
Norway has the highest number of breeding dotterel pairs, with 28,000 recorded (1981 data), 7,500 in Sweden (1984), and 800 in Finland (1986). In winter, dotterel populations migrate south to cultivated farmlands and shrublands of North Africa, particularly Morocco.
A dotterel in the low grass
In the UK, dotterel numbers are thought to be in decline, with an estimated 423 breeding males in 2011. Numbers increase temporarily as flocks (known as ‘trips’) of dotterels follow established migration routes along the east coast of England twice a year. Across Europe, populations are healthy, with up to 46,700 breeding males.
The best time of year to see dotterels in the UK is between April and October, when birds arrive from their wintering grounds for the breeding season. The UK breeding populations are concentrated in upland plateaus in the Scottish Highlands.
Passage birds may also be spotted on England’s east coast during spring and autumn migrations. Traditional places for dotterel stopovers include lowland farming fields, heathland, and upland moors in Cambridgeshire, Yorkshire, and Lancashire.
Close up portrait of a male Dotterel
If a dotterel survives past the fledgling stage, it can expect to have an average lifespan of around 12 years.
Because dotterel nest sites are built in such open, exposed settings, fledgling success is not guaranteed, and extreme weather and predation can cause nests to fail or premature death of hatchlings.
Ravens and weasels are among the chief predators of dotterels, and foxes also disturb nest sites and take chicks and eggs.
In the UK, breeding territories of dotterel are safeguarded under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, which makes it a criminal offence to disturb them at or near to their nest sites.
Dotterels are recorded as a species of least concern across Europe. However, their numbers are said to be in decline in the UK, from a peak of 1,000 males in the 1980s to an estimated 423 in 2011, a decline of 57 percent.
One theory for the decline in numbers is that habitat shared with a growing number of grazing sheep has threatened the breeding territories of the ground-nesting dotterels and forced them to settle elsewhere.
Also, the quality of soils, increasingly exposed to acidification from industry and pollution is another suggestion for the lack of safe, suitable breeding habitats in the UK.
Dotterels nest on shallow scrapes on the ground, roughly lined with leaves, moss, lichen and grass.
Between two and four eggs, usually three, are laid in the ground scrape nest between May and July. Eggs are a buff, yellow, or greenish shade, and streaked with blackish brown streaky markings. The average dotterel’s egg measures 44·1 × 28·9 mm (1.7 x 1.1 in) and takes between 21 and 29 days to hatch, incubated by the male.
Dotterels do not mate for life, or even for an entire breeding season. Females mate, lay their eggs (which are then incubated and in turn chicks raised by the father), and then move on in search of a new mate.
A dotterel (Charadrius morinellus) during its migration in Catalonia
Dotterels are far from aggressive – quite the opposite, in fact. They have a reputation as being friendly and unafraid of humans, which has in the past contributed to their decline as they are notoriously easy to capture.
Most Dotterels from across Europe head south to spend winter months in North Africa and in the Middle East, especially in Iran, although some will only migrate as far south as southern Spain. Many dotterels ringed in Britain during their summer breeding season have been tracked to Morocco once their winter migration journey is complete.
Most dotterels depart from their winter quarters in late February-March. Females tend to depart between 2 and 4 weeks ahead of males and juvenile birds, and will also return to wintering grounds first when the time comes later in the year.
Dotterel migration is particularly unusual in that birds may continue to migrate between spring breeding grounds, with individual birds recorded breeding in Scotland, before moving on to Norway where a further brood is raised.
A flock of dotterels in flight
The dotterel’s name has interesting origins, relating to the bird’s reputation as being too trusting and unafraid when approached by humans and predators. The name was first recorded in use for the species in the 1440s, when the same word was also used to refer to a simple person, similar to the word ‘dote’.
The scientific name for dotterels, Charadrius morinellus, has roots in Ancient Greek, with Charadrius meaning ‘bird found in river valleys’ and ‘morinellus’ from ‘moros’ meaning foolish.
A dotterel is a wading bird, in the same family as plovers.
Dotterels do fly and are capable of long migration flights between breeding and wintering grounds, crossing thousands of miles in late summer and early spring.
The total breeding population of dotterels across Europe is estimated at 36,500 pairs. Of these, between 510 and 750 breeding males were in Britain, according to 1999 data. 2011 figures showed a slight decline, to an estimated 423 breeding males, found mainly on plateaus in the mountainous Scottish highlands.
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