April 13th   Leave a comment

I had just got to work this morning in St Andrews when I got a text via the Fife bird network letting me know that two dotterel had been seen by Kellie Law. Dotterel are not very rare birds and turn up on hills and in open fields all over the UK in spring and autumn. And of course they breed on the high flat tops of the eastern hills in Scotland, where they are easy to see if you can bear the climb. But they are special, charismatic birds associated with either the Arctic (or our bits of near Arctic we have on the hilltops) or the hot, dry salines of North Africa where they winter. I hadn’t got them on my Crail list either. So the twitch was on. I should say again, at this point, that I only twitch for my Crail list now, and any previous serious twitching was cured years ago. Twitching is when you literally twitch with excitement at the thought of getting another new bird on your life list. It’s potentially expensive (lots of travelling) and frustrating (they can fly away before you get there).The latter is why I gave it up. Birding is too brilliant ever to be disappointing and there is always something good to look at in your backyard without travelling far. But then this was my backyard. So I contacted my colleague Jeff Graves (he had his car with him) and off we went, very rapidly, towards Anstruther.

Male dotterel at Carnbee this morning - not quite in its full breeding plumage, but then it's the females that really look good

Jeff hasn’t seen a dotterel. You could say it is one of his “bogey” birds. Despite being a birder all his life (although forgivably some of this in other parts of the world where there are no dotterels) and several trips up Scottish hills to see dotterels, he has never succeeded. He, I think, will forgive me for saying, was definitely twitching. This was manifest straight away by his unusual intolerance for everyone else on the road. Jeff is a fairly laid back person but not this morning. We had somewhere to go to and everyone was in the way, driving too slowly or badly and clearly sent by someone to foil us.

I could watch Jeff with amusement because I have seen lots of dotterels and the stakes weren’t so high for me. I grew up with dotterels as regular passage migrants. Near the town where I grew up was a farm called Dotterel Farm, so called because it was by one of their regular staging points for birds on their way to the Highlands. Every late April or the first couple of days of May a few tens of birds would arrive and feed in the bean fields for a day or two. They were a special local spring bird. I continued my acquaintance with dotterel for many years in the central Highlands when my wife worked for Scottish Natural Heritage monitoring dotterel each summer and then when she continued this as part of her PhD studies. It was a simple equation, if I wanted to see her at all during the summer I had to go to the tops of the mountains. I saw her and I also saw a lot of dotterel. They became one of my favourite birds, both by association and because they are fantastic in their own right.

Dotterels have a number of things going for them. For a start they are waders and even better, plovers. Then they have a great plumage. They are a lovely mix of red and black and blue grey, with sandy browns mixed in and yellow legs. So they look good (even my five year old daughter said they were cute this morning). But best of all is their personality. They are tame yet full of character. The females have the brighter plumage and leave the males to incubate the eggs while they go off to seek new partners, sometimes with Scottish birds leaving their males for the later season in Norway. The deserted males are then fantastic fathers. Dotterel males are fiercely protective of their chicks and eggs. The classic broken wing display, where a bird pretends to be injured to lure a predator away from their nest or chicks is a speciality of dotterels. The males devotedly incubate their eggs on their own through the terrible spring weather that we get on the tops. When the chicks hatch they look after them for three weeks, again through the terrible summer weather we get on the tops (dotterel don’t stay in the strath when the cloud is down) and again all on their own.

Jeff and I made it to the pea field by the reservoir at Carnbee in record time and the dotterel were visible straight away. A pair of males was loafing and occasionally feeding about 30 meters from the road. As we watched them, Jeff visibly relaxing, they came closer and closer to us. As I have already said, dotterel are spectacularly tame (an old name is mossfool) and despite a stream of cars and people arriving they paid little attention to us. John Anderson arrived to take the photos you see here, and my family arrived from Crail too. My wife renewing her acquaintance with her old friends. Twitches can be quite social events in lots of ways.

Jeff and I were back in St Andrews within the hour. The dotterel are still in the pea field as I write – they were certainly there until dusk as another text on the grapevine confirmed at eight thirty tonight. I wish them well as they head up to the highlands or to Norway or possibly the really high Arctic of Spitsbergen.

One of the dotterel this morning getting some training in for the weather it can expect all summer on the tops

Posted April 13, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

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