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Dunlin { Birds of Europe }

Updated on August 9, 2015

Dunlin Calidris alpina

Hillman Marsh {near Point Pelee} Canada.
Hillman Marsh {near Point Pelee} Canada. | Source


The Dunlin Calidris alpina { formerly Tringa alpina} belong top the Charadriiformes order of birds and the family Scolopidae within that order. They have been allocated the genus name of Calidris from the Greek kulidris,a grey waterside bird described by Aristotle. The specific name alpina derives from Latin alpinus=alpine from Alpes -the Alps.

In the UK they are placed on the Red list of conservation concern { declines of population /distribution over the last forty years or so.} because of international concerns over the species alpina. There are an estimated 9,600 pairs in summer. { Source the BTO }

In Ireland they are Amber listed as the majority of Dunlin winter at less than ten sites.The European population is of 3 concern most European populations are depleted. The current population size in summer 285,000-4440,000 pairs.

The populations varies from country to country here are a few selected examples. Denmark the estimated population is 340-360 Breeding pairs {BP}. Greenland 7,000-15,000 BP. Iceland 200,000-300,000 BP. Norway, 30,000-40,000 BP. Russia 15,000-130,000 BP. Sweden 30,000-50,000 BP. { source Birdlife }

There are three races recorded in Britain Schinzii which is Amber listed due to it being rare or localized,arctica Green listed {no concerns} and the subject under review alpina which is as previously mentioned Red listed.

Dunlins breed in central and northern Europe,Siberia and North America. They winter south to southern Asia, Africa and Mexico. They are a bird of Tundra,Moor, heath and on migration estuaries and coasts. In the UK they are classed as migrant/breeding and passage winter visitor.

Courtesy of PC King, this excellent video shows Dunlins feeding and preening on the Lancashire coast { North west England}. Standard YouTube license https://ww

What are Dunlins ?

The Dunlin is a small wading bird { shore bird in North America}. They are birds that breed in the Arctic or sub-Arctic regions,North America, Europe and Asia,and many are long distance migrants such as those that breed in Europe and Asia ,while those that breed in Alaska and Canada migrate short distances to the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of North America.

they are highly gregarious in winter,often found in large flocks on coastal mudflats and on sandy beaches. They are often observed in swirling synchronized flight. {see video below}. The genus to which they belong include the typical waders many of which are strongly migratory.

They have bills which contain sensitive areas called corpuscles,which enable the birds to locate buried prey items, which they typically seek with restless running and probing.. The closest relative is the Turnstone**. The genus includes the Knots,Sandpipers and Stints. Here we review the Dunlin Calidris alpina and as always we commence with a description of the species under review.

Dunlin and habitat

Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland. Richard Crossley.
Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland. Richard Crossley. | Source


Winter plumage above summer plumage below.
Winter plumage above summer plumage below. | Source

Description of the Dunlin

At a glance--- It has a slightly down curved bill, and a distinctive black belly patch in breeding plumage. It feeds in flocks in winter,sometimes numbering thousands,roosting on nearby fields,salt marshes and shore the tide is high.

In more detail---In its summer plumage the Dunlin has the beak black, the irides brown. The top of the head is a mixture of black and brown. The neck is greyish white with black streaks.The wings are greyish black,with the secondary feathers edged with white. The rump and tail coverts a black-ash colour. The tail dark brown and ash grey. The chin is white the neck in front,greyish white,with black streaks, the breast is mottled black and white. The vent ,thigh and under tail coverts are white. The legs, toes and claws are black.

The female somewhat resembles the male ,but are lighter in colour,and the markings are not quite so distinct.

In winter , the head and neck,the back and wings are nearly uniform ash grey. There are dusky streaks on the front of the neck,and the breast and under parts are pure white. The wings do not appear to be subject to any noticeable variation. In autumn the sexes are alike in plumage and very pretty. Females tend to be a little larger than the males..

They may often be seen in the day time asleep on the beach, the head being turned towards the back.

The birds naturally vary very much in the intermediate stages of their plumage, between those of summer and that of winter. When in winter plumage the Dunlin is often referred to as Purre { see text below}

Another great video courtesy of Paul Dinning taken at St Gothian Sands in Cornwall,{ South West England} Standard You Tube License https://youtube,com/watch?v=_


Taken on the East Coast of England
Taken on the East Coast of England | Source

Illustration of Dunlin


General and historical information

The Dunlin, as previously mentioned, is on the Red list of conservation concern in the UK,however, it is still the commonest wild wader found along our coasts. They breed in the uplands of Scotland,Wales and England. The greatest numbers found on the western and northern Isles and the flow country of Caithness and Sutherland in Scotland and in the Pennines in England. They are also found on all UK estuaries with the largest numbers occurring in winter.

This seems to have been the case during the 1800's as Swaysland, conveys in his book 'Familiar Wild Birds' published in 1883. He states, " The Dunlin or Purre is by far the most abundant of all 'Sandpipers' known in this country. Formerly the Dunlin was considered a species totally distinct from the Purre, but more accurate observations between the summer and winter plumage of one and the same bird,and that the Dunlin of the first named season, is the Purre of the latter,merely clothed in a somewhat different costume. In addition to these names , it is also known as Oxbird,Sea-Snipe,Plover's Page,Sandpiper and Sea-Lark "

Morris, on the other-hand, referring to the reason given by Swaysland regarding the Purre says " But I do not see but that the other sandpipers have an equal claim to the title on the like account"

During the 1800's it seems , it was more or less common to every portion of our shores,especially those of a low flat character,with reaches of sand or mud. During the spring the Dunlin advances to the more northerly parts of the country,and journeys southwards in the autumn. Whilst performing these flights,the young and old birds nearly always proceed in separate flocks. The birds if travelling to any great distance,fly in a relative straight line,very close together,at some height in the air. However, at other times they keep very close to the ground and water

They feed upon aquatic insects,worms and the smaller sized crustaceans. It is an enlightening experience to observe these flocks feed on some low sandy flat,running to and fro in search of food. Their movements are rapid and continuous,and they appear to be perpetually on the move,one minute running into a shallow part of the receeding waves,next stopping to probe the sand with their bills,and now and again,when the fancy takes them, taking a short flight to a more productive spot.

The entire flock move simultaneously when disturbed,but does not usually move to any considerable distances. Morris reveals that the birds are " Good to eat in the Autumn on its first return to the sea." Butler, 1898, on the other hand states " This bird,is dearly loved of the Cockney shore-gunner { though what he shoots it for is hard to define,unless he has an idea that killing of so many 'brace' constitutes him as a 'Sportsman'. However, this species is very abundant and most unsuspicious bird,often finds its way into the gunner's bag"

During the flight they rest on some rock or other eminence or remain gathered together on the beach awaiting the time when they are able to return to their feeding places. Bonhote, 1907,reveals that the male has " A pretty little trill which he generally utters on the wing as they fly over the nest"

Dunlins in flight Courtesy of nwbirding. Taken near West 90 on the Samish Flats WA. Standard youtube license

Breeding, nest and eggs.

The breeding season of the Dunlin commences about May,and at this time they vacate the shores and seek out Moors and Heath land,where they may be encountered with the Golden Plover,which gave them one of their archaic common names of 'Plover's Page'.

A very slight hollow or inequality in the ground with a few pieces of dried grass or heather,is considered sufficient for a nest. The female will deposit,as a rule, four eggs. These are greenish white colour with sots and blotches of different shades of brown, they are about an inch and a quarter long which is relatively large considering the size of the bird which lays them.

In common with other ground nesting birds they adopt all kinds of ruses to attract attention away from their nests. Morris relates that " The Dunlin is very careful of its nest and contents. The bird has on more than one occasion been known to suffer herself to be taken by hand sooner than forsake it"

The eggs are incubated by both parents for a period of between 20-30 days. They leave the nest soon after hatching and conceal themselves in the most recondite manner, relying on their excellent camouflage to blend in with their natural surroundings.

Eggs of the Dunlin

Museum Wiesbaden Germany
Museum Wiesbaden Germany | Source

Young birds.

The young birds soon after hatching have all the upper surface of the body covered with a pretty soft,ash coloured brown down,with a black stripe down the from the head through the back. the lower parts are greyish white,and the legs are green.

In their first years plumage they have the bill a brownish black colour. The head on the sides and neck a pale mixture of grey and brown. The breast is white,spotted with dusky brown. The back,wing coverts and tertiary feathers a mixture of black, dark brown ,pale brown and buff. The under tail coverts are white. The legs are brownish black.

Juvenile Dunlin



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    • D.A.L. profile image

      Dave 3 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Deb, waders {Shore birds} are wonderful birds to observe,their antics are amusing.The Dunlin is a particular favourite of mine. Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      I have always had a soft spot for water and shore birds, as I grew up on the east coast. I have naturally gravitated to these birds, who have such interesting lives and ways about them.

    • D.A.L. profile image

      Dave 3 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi, thank you for your kind comments,glad you have enjoyed it. Best wishes to you.


      Hi Sally, your gracious comments are much appreciated and encouraging and always welcomed. Best wishes to you.


      Hello Devika, your comments are also always ones of an encouraging nature and as always appreciated very much,thank you too,for all your votes,you are very kind. Best wishes to you.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Dunlins are so different from all other birds. I like the way you presented this hub. Beautiful photos and always interesting from you. Voted up, interesting , beautiful, and useful.

    • sallybea profile image

      Sally Gulbrandsen 3 years ago from Norfolk

      Another beautiful hub, informative and interesting hub. You have really created a collection of niche hubs which everyone can admire and enjoy.

      They deserve to be compiled in a book.