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Dunlin (Calidris alpina)Dunlin (Calidris alpina)

The dunlin may be the commonest small wader on our coast but it is still special. In fact it is now one of the many birds on the RSPB Amber list of Endangered Birds.

While they may be rather dumpy looking, when they take to the air en masse they can be mesmerising. You could liken them to a shoreline starling as they flock in ever changing formations. As they twist and turn in unison they make shapes across the skyline, their white underside sparkling in the winter sun.  It can be quite a sight, so worth standing and staring!

fling of dunlin

Listen to their call:


Winter dunlin

Around  350,000* dunlins spend the winter in the UK. They nest in Scandinavia and Russia coming to the UK coastline around October and returning to nest in the spring. So in winter you can see quite large numbers at Portbury Wharf. In this fling, a fling being the collective noun for dunlins, there are over 1200.

1200 plus in front of Royal Portbury Dock on a November morning at twilight
 Did you know a dunlin can live up to 19 years and always returns to the same wintering site? 

Where to see winter dunlin

You are most likely to see dunlins when they are flying up and down the edge of our muddy salt marshes. They spend most of their time here foraging for worms, snails and insects.  Though on a high tide they may find a place to rest on the reserve like North Pool Island as you can see in this fabulous video.

Other times you may see them near to the marina. The rocks and old jetty posts outside the lock gates are a handy stop over until the tide recedes.


Dunlins on the rocks in Portishead Hole at high tide
Dunlins on the rocks in Portishead Hole at high tide

Summer dunlin

You may also see dunlins in summer, though not in large numbers so they are much harder to spot. Only around 9,600* pairs will nest in the UK but you may spot them on passage to or from their upland nesting sites. In August, after nesting, these summer dunlins will be ready to head back south to winter in West Africa. They are an entirely different race from our Scandinavian and Russian winter dunlins who never breed here.  You can read more about dunlins and their migration at RSPB Dunlin Migration in the UK.

While both sexes are very similar you can distinguish breeding dunlins by the dark patch on their belly.  They are ground nesting birds, so the eggs and young are always at the peril of predators and being trampled.  It is the male dunlin which builds the nest, several in fact, and the female will pick her favourite.

* According to RSPB figures

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References and further reading: