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 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.
We have colorful plumage, especially during the breeding season, when our reddish/chestnut-colored underparts are at their brightest. Our back is streaked grey and a warm brown. We have a broad white eye stripe and white band around our neck, and a black belly. The bill is short and the legs are yellow. We also appear along the British coasts during the spring and autumn migrations as we travel between northern Europe and North Africa and the Middle East.
There are not many of us 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 our preferred habitat and food supply. Currently, we nest in 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 us in North America only as a casual visitor, although a few of us 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 compensate with sightings of the killdeer in California, also a member of the plover family, but one that I could not see in Europe. They are the ecologic equivalents of European lapwings. Most noteworthy, I recently encountered several killdeers foraging for insects and earthworms on the local soccer field in Tiburon, CA. Unlike the dotterel, they are shy and run away if you try to get too close to them.