Dotterel, a small plover, and a word in Britain used to describe a person easily deceived, stupid or gullible; why?
As a small wader and member of the plover family of birds, the dotterel is known for its friendly, sweet and trusting behavior towards humans. As a result, it is easily caught, was hunted for sport, eaten by royalty as a delicacy during English Tudor times and its brightly-colored feathers were used for fishing lures. Today, in Britain, it receives the highest conservation priority because it is included on the UK red list of most endangered species.
I have never seen one of these medium-sized birds, or at least I have never been able to identify one. Many years ago, I and a friend watched a bird that flew like a plover and displayed the characteristic run-stop-and tilt-forward feeding behavior of members of this bird family, but did not display the usual plumage we associated with plovers. It was almost certainly a dotterel since I had already seen the more typical types of plover in Britain. I simply scribbled a note describing our sighting but took no further action.
Can you imagine us dotterels running among the heath and grasses of upland Scotland where currently some 500 males incubate and rear our young? We choose to nest on high, dry tundra. Our mates often end their relationship with us once their eggs are laid, and fly off, leaving us to take care of the offspring, while they travel, sometimes as far away as Norway or Finland, to find a new mate to lay a second batch of eggs (a behavior known as sequential polyandry). The female may produce her second clutch before her previous brood has fledged. Hardly any other bird species does this.
They have a colorful plumage, especially during the breeding season, when their reddish/chestnut-colored underparts are at their brightest. The back is streaked grey and a warm brown, and there is a broad white eye stripe and white band around their neck, and a black belly. The bill is short and the legs are yellow. They also appear along the British coasts during the spring and autumn migrations as they move between northern Europe and North Africa and the Middle East.
There are not many left breeding in Britain. A population decrease of nearly 60 percent has occurred during the past 30 years due to global warming and its effect on the species preferred habitat and food supply. Breeding ranges have retreated up hill and the birds’ settlement pattern has altered because of vegetation change and a reduction in the amount of snow cover. With a longer season for vegetation growth, some nesting areas are lost to long grass, and the disappearance of snow lessens the areas where dotterel can feed, possibly reducing the abundance of insects. Currently, the species nests in parts of Scotland and occasionally in the English Lake District. Not surprisingly, the Scottish Gaelic name for the dotterel translates into “the fool of the moors”.
You find dotterels in North America only as a casual visitor, although a few do make the journey from Siberia to Alaska, and occasionally nest in the west of the state. The first recorded sighting in California of a dotterel was on the Farallon Islands, off San Francisco, in September 1974, and every few years additional sightings are reported, including at Point Reyes only a few miles from where I live. So, maybe one day I can add this species to my Life List of birds. Meanwhile I will accept the perky and noisy killdeer, as shown above, as the substitute.
My final comment concerns global warming. It is not just the dotterel that is affected, but birds generally, and especially those that migrate. British birds are arriving on average 9 days earlier than in the past and are pushing their range northwards. American robins arrive in the Rockies two weeks earlier but the worms and other food needed for their offspring are not yet available. Some non-migratory British great tits now nest too late to make use of the abundance of caterpillars that occurs earlier because of warmer winters. Plants leaf sooner, causing leaf-eating larvae to hatch sooner. Rising temperatures, flooding, drought, wildfires and sea level rises take away the traditional habitat of many birds and interfere with the availability of their food supplies.