Dotterel, 7th modern record

21 August 2008 | Marek Walford

In late August a juvenile Marsh Harrier had been lingering for a few days over cereal fields near West Ilsley. On the 20th I decided to go up after work and try to add the harrier to my year list (at the time 176). After about an hour I had seen 7 Red Kites, 5 Buzzards and 5 Kestrels, along with Fallow and Roe Deer and Hare, but no harrier.

At 18:25 while scanning to the west I noticed a medium sized wader with long pointed wings and a zigzag flight heading towards me. My first thought was Golden Plover but as it passed over head at a height of about fifty metres I could see a rusty orange breast and bold white supercilium. It was a Dotterel, and just to be sure, it called! Losing it in my scope I got my bins onto it only to find it had been joined by another! I moved round the hedge to watch both birds disappearing over the brow of the hill as they headed off purposefully south. In total they were probably on view for about thirty seconds.

The first bird was definitely an adult, though I wouldn't want to hazard a guess as to sex. I didn't get as good a view of the second bird so I couldn't say what age or sex it was. On reflection the first bird may have been over Oxfordshire when I first picked it up. Regardless, with the direction of flight they definitely would have passed through Oxfordshire air space. I also saw the Merlin that had been seen on the 18th but I never did see the harrier!

Previous Records

There have been just six previous modern records, although three of these have been since 2004.

Historically, Dotterel was a much commoner bird in Berkshire. Hewett (1861) wrote that they arrive in the Compton area in April and return in the middle of August, generally in trips of 12-16, though he had seen at least 60 on one occasion. Palmer (1886) wrote that they were once a regular spring and autumn migrant on the Ilsley Downs. However, by the late 19th century a decline appeared to have set in and the only specific records are of a pair shot at Greenham Common some time in 1885 and six killed near Compton in 1886.

The Downs were much more routinely patrolled by shooters in the 19th century but never the less there does appear to have been a genuine decline. However, the fact that the Ilsley Downs is noted as being a regular site in the 19th century, and that four of the seven modern records have been in the Ilsley area, suggests that the species probably occurs far more regularly than records suggest. I'm sure more coverage in April/May and August/September would pay dividends.