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I guess we all have wishes or dreams and birders are no exception. Ever since starting birding many years ago, I have always had a soft spot for our northern migrants and winter visitors, and perhaps some of my fondest memories are of personal finds such as rough legged buzzard, great grey shrike and snow bunting on our local moors. Which brings us to the dotterel! This for me is a fascinating northern bird which once was a common and regular migrant on our hill-tops so common that dotterel is a well used place name on the Wolds. For example The Dotterel Inn, Speeton is near where many birds were shot for their feathers, which were used by anglers. However, by the time I regularly walked the moors in the fifties, numbers had deteriorated so much that it was not really known as a migrant in this area. So I was surprised in the 60s and 70s, when I had moved away, to hear reports that it was once again being seen on spring migration on these moors.
Dotterel have always been known to stop over in spring on favourite hilltop feeding sites, so when I returned to live in this area I researched where they had been seen, and the two local moor tops where there had been intermittent sightings were Shunner Howe, East Rosedale and Danby Beacon. In the last few years I made a few forays to these and other moor tops, but with no luck.
In 2003 I decided to try and influence things and made much more frequent visits to both Danby and Shunner in late April/May, scanning the moors from the car and walking the tops. Having not seen dotterel on moorland, I wasnt sure how easy they would be to see, for example on short or burnt ling. Two birds I did see reasonably frequently were resident golden plover and migrant wheatear, which although quite colourful, merge well into typical bare moorland habitat, and are thus not easy to see unless they move. Granted there are size and colour differences compared to dotterel, and both birds often made my heart skip a beat as they moved and became visible, but they were never dotterel. By late May I realised my ambition wasnt to be achieved in 2003, and more than a little disheartened I gave up the search.
But there were consolations. Although moorland is one of my favourite habitats it generally does not have varied birdlife. Therefore imagine my surprise when at Shunner in late April a marsh harrier flew low past the car and landed in the heather near a pit hill. Because of the latter I was able to get to within a few yards of the bird before it got up and flew off high to the west. This was the first time I had seen this bird in Ryedale, and in a very unexpected location. Excellent views of short eared owl on three occasions were also a bonus, as was finding a golden plover nest whilst walking high on Shunner. The fine weather also helped, and I hope it is similarly kind on the moor tops this year when once more I will try to achieve a dream.
Postscript: In summer, when chatting to a farmer friend from Farndale, she mentioned that dotterel had been in one of their fields in late April! From her description, it seems very likely that the birds were dotterel. She knows of my interest in birds and I said why didnt you ring, to which the answer was she had intended to, but it had been a very busy lambing time. No doubt it was busy some you win and some you lose.
Tom Denney January 2004.
[Ed: Tom finally saw his dotterels in late April (see pic right and click on the image for the whole scene [477K]): he sent me an email on 30th which reads (in part)]:
... back for help with lambing so didnt get around to checking bird guides until 1030 last night and then of course guess what a pair of dotterel had been seen on Danby Beacon! Bird Line said that they had been there at dusk so at 0450 this morning set off for the Beacon with much trepidation - and lo and behold there they were right by the roadside at the top of the hill giving excellent views from the car at about ten yards range. Not surprisingly at 5.30am no other birders there only the police checking an abandoned car and a guy releasing lot of homing pigeons (the dotterel regarded these with some suspicion as due to the low cloud they made several low and swift passes overhead before deciding which route was home)...
... Had always wondered about how easy dotterel would be to see. They were on heather which had been burnt some time ago and with plenty of moss ie a basically mottled dark background. In this situation the light brown male stood out in the same way as does a hen pheasant - the much more distinctively patterned female was much less easy to see. Both stood out more than a nearby golden plover which was a little larger. In summary not too difficult to pick out.
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