Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Dunlin Delight

Old Law at the northern end of Ross Links in the Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve is an island for but a few fleeting moments on the highest tides. The gap, known as the Wide Opens, gradually fills with water from Fenham flats to the west (left) and spills over to join the North Sea.

As the tide gradually flowed to fill the gap, I listened as a thousand pale-bellied Brent Geese, barking like dogs, filled the air with sound. The arrival of the geese is one of those landmark annual events. Although they draw Summer to a close, they herald the appealing prospect of the wild, bright winter days to come on the shore here.

Standing for a moment and staring out across the slowly filling gap, a ringed plover moved and drew my attention. Lifting the binoculars I saw that there were dozens of little waders going about their frantic feeding business across the peebled sand.

I stayed put and they gradually moved closer and closer until the nearest birds were no more a couple of metres away. The majority were dunlin, Britain's bog-standard small wader, often given scant attention by birders other than a quick squint to make sure they are not something more 'interesting'.

But take a closer look and you wonder what the field guide is on about when it says 'rather dull'. Dunlins are fascinating and very attractive once you get to see them close to. Hugely variable in size, bill length, bill curvature, leg length and plumage they can be quite tricky but they have that certain dunliness about them. I reckon that this one is a juvenile moulting into its first winter plummage (the white 'v' effect on the back and the remnant of spots on the sides).

This bird shows the remnant of the breeding plumage - the dark patch on the flanks.

This one is further on with its moult into the greyer back of winter and white underparts.

The icing on the cake was that throughout their clockwork feeding bustle, the flock kept in touch with each other with lovely low volume chattering calls - something that you just don't hear normally. Great birds, dunlin.

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