The Dunlin is a small wading bird from the sandpiper family Scolopacidae. Dunlins breed across North America and northern Europe, and Asia and are one of the most widely distributed wading birds, with ten subspecies.
A tough and hardy wading bird, Dunlins are no stranger to ultra-cold Arctic environments and breed across Greenland, Iceland, Siberia, Alaska, and the north Canadian provinces of Yukon, Nunavut, and the Northwest Territories.
Dunlins exist in 10 different subspecies, all with subtle differences in the contrast and colouration of their predominantly brown and grey plumage.
Dunlins have two different core plumage types; breeding and winter. Their breeding plumage is brighter and more coloured, and both males and females develop a dark belly.
In the winter, Dunlins are grey above their stomachs and white below, with minimal but subtle orange-brown colouration to the wings. In the breeding season, Dunlins have a distinctive black belly and rufous upper parts that are more colourful in general. It’s probably easiest to identify Dunlins from their black legs, black curved bill and hunched wader-like form.
Juveniles are paler and streakier overall. Their upper halves are browner, and they have two V-shaped markings on their wings.
Female and male Dunlins look similar, but males have darker bellies during the breeding season. The female is slightly larger than the male, with a longer bill.
Dunlin breeding plumage
Dunlin winter plumage
Dunlins are small wading birds, measuring 16 to 22cm (6.3 to 8.7in) long, with a wingspan of 36 to 38 cm (14.2 to 15.0in). They weigh 48 to 77g (1.7 to 2.7oz).
Dunlins are particularly lively at their breeding grounds, where they produce an array of burry notes and high-pitched trills. The most common vocalisation is a short reed-like trill and a longer trill chrri-i-i-i-i-i-ri-ri-ri-ri-ri-r.
Prior to migration, flocks of gathering Dunlins produce a kree sound, and once chicks hatch, the parents communicate with a low-pitched purr-like sound.
Dunlin calling from shallow water
Dunlins forage in predominantly marine habitats and their diets consist primarily of marine invertebrates such as annelids (a type of marine worm).
They also eat earthworms, flies, crane flies, beetles, spiders, snails, mussels, clams, and amphipods. Small saltwater clams called Macoma are a staple food of Pacific Dunlins. Chironomid larvae (a family of midges) are especially important in the breeding season.
In Europe, Dunlins consume more gastropods than in North America. A staple food is Hydrobia, a genus of small aquatic snails. However, dunlins do also eat plant matter, including seeds, which has become an important part of their diet in some regions.
Dunlins forage by walking through their environments and pecking at foliage, sand, dirt and rocks. They feed both in the night and day, though some are observed to feed primarily at night. Dunlins seem to wash worms of dirt and sand before eating them.
Dunlin chicks feed predominantly on small flies and their larvae. Adults lead the chicks to insect-abundant areas, and the chicks feed themselves.
Close up of a Dunlin foraging for food in the water
Dunlins are aquatic wading birds that breed in boggy wetland habitats. Dunlins thrive in colder environments and live across the arctic and tundra, including mudflats, lagoons, ponds, coastlines, flooded fields, estuaries and freshwater bogs. Tall grasses and reeds provide cover and shelter.
In their non-breeding range, Dunlins winter near rivers, lakes, ponds and other coastal or freshwater landforms.
Dunlins stretch across practically the entire sub-Arctic Northern Hemisphere. In North America, Dunlin populations span southwestern Alaska all the way to James Bay, Canada.
In Europe and Asia, Dunlins stretch from Iceland, Greenland, the UK and Ireland to Scandinavia, Russia, northeastern Europe, north Asia and parts of central and east Asia.
Dunlins live across both upland and lowland habitats, in boggy, marshy, swampy or other wetlands. Habitats include everything from the frozen tundra marshes and permafrost peat bogs to the marshy uplands of Wales and Scotland. Dunlins are mostly found near the coast.
Dunlin in flight
Dunlins are the commonest sandpipers, with a global population exceeding 5.5 million. The IUCN lists them as a bird of Least Concern.
However, Dunlins are becoming rarer across some parts of their range. For example, populations are declining in the UK, and the species appears on the UK conservation red list.
Dunlins confine themselves to their northern breeding grounds, which are scattered across Alaska and Canada. In the non-breeding season, Dunlins migrate to the US, where they can be found across the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf Coasts.
They're easiest to spot at coastal mudflats, especially when the tide falls, which is when Dunlins frequently forage.
The UK’s breeding population of Dunlins is found across the coastal regions of Scotland, Wales and England. The largest populations are found in the Western and Northern Isles. Hotspots include Flow Country of Caithness and Sutherland in Scotland, in the Pennines in England.
In the nonbreeding season, Dunlins are easier to spot across the UK's estuaries. Some key RSPB reserves include RSPB Adur Estuary, RSPB Newport Wetlands, RSPB Nigg Bay, RSPB Loch na Muilne, and RSPB Forsinard Flows.
Young Dunlin searching for food on the shore during autumn
Dunlins typically live around 5.5 years. Males are observed to live longer than females. The oldest known individual was 24 years old. Only around 3/10 birds survive their first year.
Dunlins are targeted by many raptors, including eagles, falcons, hawks, ospreys and owls. Raptor predation accounted for 21% of all mortality in one study at Bolinas Lagoon, CA.
One of Dunlins’ main predators in Europe is the Merlin. Cold weather and disease also account for a large portion of Dunlin mortality. Most birds die during the non-breeding season.
Dunlins are not globally threatened. However, in the UK, Dunlins are classified as Red under the Birds of Conservation Concern 5: the Red List for Birds (2021).
Dunlins are not globally threatened, but some populations are declining sharply. In the UK, Dunlins are classified as Red under the Birds of Conservation Concern 5: the Red List for Birds (2021).
Three Dunlins resting near the shore
Dunlins nest in a small depression scraped into the ground. Nesting sites are typically situated close to where the Dunlin was born.
The male typically chooses the nesting site and creates the depression. The female then tosses moss, grasses and other lining materials into the nest. Typical nests measure around 12 to 15cm across and 75 to 120cm deep.
Dunlin eggs are ovular and measure around 36mm long. They’re usually olive to olive-brown, but some are blue-green, with light brown, black and orange, which are concentrated towards the widest part of the egg.
Dunns are typically monogamous, mating for life. Both the male and female take part in incubation and the raising of chicks. The male often feeds the older chicks more than the female.
Female Dunlins lay a single small clutch of around 3 to 4 eggs. Both parents assist with incubation, which takes approximately 21 to 22 days. The birds fledge after 20 days or so, but don’t reach sexual maturity for 1 to 2 years. Both parents feed the young birds.
Young Dunlins leave the nest within just hours of being born and can feed themselves within just a day or two. Dunlins develop quickly and join their parents on the first migration the winter after birth.
Dunlin chick amongst the grass
Dunlins are highly territorial during the breeding season and stoutly defend their nests from other Dunlins and other animals. In the winter, Dunlins are less aggressive and often form large sociable flocks. Aggression is nearly always associated with the breeding season.
Dunlins are strongly migratory. In North America, Dunlins usually travel short-to-medium distances from their Canadian and Alaskan breeding grounds to their wintering grounds on the coastal USA, extending towards Mexico. In addition, some North American birds head towards Japan and China.
In Europe, migratory journeys are typically longer, with Dunlins heading from across northern Europe and north Asia to southeast Asia, Africa, the Mediterranean and Indian Subcontinent.
Dunlins migrate in large, synchronised flocks.
A flock of Dunlin in flight
The “dun” is derived from the Old English dun, meaning a mouse-brown or dull-brown colour. The suffix -ling refers to something of that quality. The name Dunlin first started appearing in the early 16th century.
Dunlins are the most common and widespread wading bird of the Scolopacidae family, also known as the sandpipers.
Family:Sandpipers, snipes and phalaropes
16cm to 22cm
36cm to 38cm
48g to 77g
The Eurasian woodcock spends days roosting in dense, damp woodland undergrowth, and evenings and nights foraging in open fields as well as woods for worms and beetles.
The UKs breeding population of Wood Sandpipers are limited to an area of swampy marshland in the Highlands of northern Scotland, although they are far more commonly sighted in passage during their spring and autumn migrations as they make brief stopovers in southern and eastern England.
A long-legged wader, closely related to the curlew, the Eurasian whimbrel, has small breeding populations established on the Scottish islands of Shetland and Orkney. Migrating whimbrels may be spotted along Britain’s coastlines as they undertake long-distance migration flights between Arctic tundra breeding grounds and wintering territories in Africa.
The Ruddy Turnstone is an attractive shorebird, frequently seen flipping stones in search of small creatures sheltering beneath. These long-distance migrants visit temperate and tropical coastlines across the globe but return to the Arctic each year to nest.
One of the smallest wading bird species to visit British shores, the Temminck’s stint is now classed as a ‘former breeder’ in the UK, with breeding pairs no longer regularly observed. Passage migrants may still be seen, particularly on the eastern coast in May.
Spotted redshanks have a distinctive black spotted summer plumage that UK residents are unlikely to see in birds on British shores, as the species is only a rare winter visitor or spotted in migration passage. Several hundred spotted redshanks make brief stopovers on British coastal wetlands each year, en-route to and from breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle.
The Snipe is a common but shy wader seen throughout the United Kingdom. These cryptic birds make a living by probing marshy ground for invertebrates in the mud below.
Sanderlings run tirelessly along sandy beaches, rushing down to feed as the waves recede and sprinting back, seemingly hoping to keep their feet dry. Their comical antics and non-descript looks belie an impressive avian that makes remarkable migrations between Arctic nesting grounds and overwintering grounds as distant as the southern tips of South America and South Africa.
A rare breeding wading bird in the UK, ruffs are among the most intriguing bird species on Earth, due to the diversity not just between males and females, but also between the three distinctly different types of males that occur.
Named for its red-orange legs, the Redshank is a common and noisy wader of the United Kingdom. These wary birds are present throughout the year, although they are most numerous in the winter non-breeding season.
Unlike many wading bird species, in red-necked phalaropes the traditional roles are reversed. The female is larger, brighter and leaves parental care of the young to the drabber, smaller male. Also, unusual for waders, red-necked phalaropes spend up to 9 months at sea once breeding in the upper northern hemisphere is complete.
A hardy wading bird that thrives in the bleak Arctic tundra landscapes of northeastern Canada, Greenland and Iceland, purple sandpipers arrive on wintering grounds along the northeastern coast of the United States and the UK each autumn, to forage for molluscs and crustaceans on rocky shores and coastal headlands.
Pectoral Sandpipers are mid-sized waders that breed on wet tundra landscapes across the northernmost extremes of North America and the Siberian Arctic. Their epic annual migration return trips of up to 30,000 km are one of the most lengthy of any bird species, similar to those undertaken by the Arctic tern.
One of the world’s smallest wading birds, little stints cover enormous distances on their annual migrations between breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle and winter territories in southern Africa and South Asia. A handful of individual birds spend winter in the UK, and records of vagrant birds reaching North America are occasionally reported.
Red knots, known simply as ‘knots’ in the UK are medium-sized shorebirds that undertake impressive annual migrations of up to 30,000 km (18,000 mi) each year between Arctic breeding grounds and southern coastal wintering habitats.
Highly camouflaged and elusive, the jack snipe is a small wading bird that spends winters on mudflats and freshwater wetlands across Britain. Smaller and less common than the UK’s other native snipe, the common snipe, jack snipes are harder to spot due to their tendency to crouch low and remain hidden among reeds.
The grey phalarope’s winter and summer plumage are so distinctly different that the species is known by an entirely different name in the US. In the UK, the bird’s name reflects its post-breeding plumage, which is dominated by light grey and white. However, in the US, it is known as the red phalarope, after the more vibrant orange-red plumage seen during the breeding season.
A medium wading bird, named after its brightly coloured legs, the greenshank breeds in northern Scotland, as well as further to the east across Scandinavia and Russia. In winter, an influx of greenshanks descends upon wetlands and marshes and along the coast of south-west England, Wales, Ireland and north-east Scotland. Tens of thousands of birds migrate significantly further afield, reaching the coasts of Australia, Indonesia and South Africa.
Green sandpipers are stocky shorebirds similar to the common sandpiper. They spend winters at inland freshwater wetlands in southern Europe and northern and central Africa after raising their young in swampy forests and wet woodland landscapes across northern Europe.
Identified as being from a group of birds known as Waders, within North America they are generally referred to as Shorebirds. This monotypic species, a long distance migrant, is considered to have an Amber Conservation Status otherwise known as Near Threatened.
The largest European wading bird, the Eurasian curlew is easy to identify with its elongated bow-shaped bill and spindly legs. In winter groups of curlews known as ‘curfews’ forage together in coastal wetlands, and up to 66,000 pairs breed in the UK and are resident all year round.
Belonging to a group of birds generally called waders or shorebirds, the common sandpiper prefers freshwater habitats as opposed to saltwater locations.
An impressive, proud looking wader with particularly fine summer plumage which migrates south from its northern breeding grounds from July to October, returning for the summer from late February through April.
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