I had a great opportunity to get to see another side to dunlin while in the Outer Hebrides, and I must admit that I liked what I saw. Dunlin come to the Solway in massive numbers every year, and they become as common as midges down on the foreshore, where they often mass in anonymous swarms which tinkle against the grey mud like glittering fish. You might see thousands in a day’s wildfowling, and the overall impression is usually that they are lovely birds which depend for their beauty on being part of a larger group. Individually, they are as grey and as unremarkable as eels (see picture below of dunlin in Norfolk this spring), and it is only in massed formation that they really catch the eye.
Not only are they far more impressive to see in the summer, but their range of enthusiastic little display songs was a very pleasant surprise. They would often rise up off the machair to buzz and hang with as much grave authority as larks, trembling their wings and issuing forth a very pleasing little trill, rather like a dry, slightly gummed referee’s pea whistle. I even found a nest, artfully concealed on a sandy stretch of short grass. There were four little red-blotched eggs under a loose canopy of dry grass which had made the hen bird as invisible as a ghost, and I felt that strange lurch I always feel when I find a nest by accident and feel suddenly shy and unworthy.
Dunlin are relatively common breeders across the uplands, but they have been hard hit by commercial planting in Galloway and I don’t think I’ve ever heard of birds breeding here in my lifetime. I’m told that the extraordinary peat bog called the Silver Flowe used to be an important breeding site for dunlin and redshank in the South West of Scotland, but half of this internationally designated peatland (SAC, SSSI and RAMSAR) was planted with commercial woodland before I was born, and there are none there now. Another common breeding bird made scarce in a single generation.