The northern dunlin is a small, starling-sized wader, with a short neck and medium to long gently downward curved bill. In the breeding season, adults have a distinctive black belly patch, a rusty-brown crown and reddish-brown or golden-brown upper feathers. Plumage varies seasonally and with age, making identification more challenging. In winter, the upperparts are grey and the lower parts white, meaning dunlins are easily confused with curlew, sandpipers or sanderlings.
Dunlin are typically seen in flocks during migration and outside the breeding season, with other small waders. Large numbers can often be seen swirling in synchronized flight on their winter habitat. In summer, it breeds in the uplands of the UK, with large numbers in the Western and Northern Isles. They forage energetically, with rapid movements on stony beaches, sandy flats and muddy lagoons. Dunlins snatch food (insects, worms and molluscs) from the surface, or probe the ground with fast, sewing machine-like movements.
The shallow simple scrape nests are lined with leaves and grass. This makes the eggs and chicks susceptible to predation, by weasels, owls, gulls and other birds of prey. When dunlin chicks hatch they are already able to care for themselves independent of their parents. Chicks leave the nest along with both parents within hours of hatching. They move to wetland marshy areas where the chicks already know how to feed for themselves. The parents do not bring food directly to the chicks.
- Length 16-22cm
- Wingspan 34-40cm
- Weight: 40-50g
- Average Lifespan: 5 years
Classified in the UK as Amber under the Birds of Conservation Concern 4: the Red List for Birds (2015). Protected by The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
The alpina subspecies of dunlin is one of the most common wintering waders on Scottish coasts, with the highest numbers found in southern and eastern mainland areas and in the Outer Hebrides. To the west, numbers are highest on the Scottish shores of the Solway Firth and the Clyde. The former is the only Scottish site with internationally important numbers. The Firth of Forth and the Inner Moray Firth hold nationally important populations for Scotland.
When to see
- Three subspecies of dunlin have been recorded in Scotland; (i) alpina (northern dunlin) and the most common subspecies in Scotland; (ii) schinzii (southern dunlin) – which breeds in north and west mainland, the Outer Hebrides and Shetland; (iii) artica (Greenland dunlin) a passage migrant in August and September.
- Dunlin tend to return to the same wintering sites year after year