Dunlin Calidris alpina on the artificial lagoon; high tide wader roost at Freiston Shore RSPB reserve, The Wash, Lincolnshire, England.

Dunlin migration

Dunlins arrive in the UK from Greenland, Iceland, Norway and Russia.

Different dunlins and where they migrate

The dunlins we see here in winter are not the same ones that we see in summer. There are at least 11 different races of dunlins in the world. Three of these races visit the UK each year, each one at a different time.

Only one race of dunlins breeds in the UK. It nests in small numbers on boggy uplands in Scotland or western parts of England and Wales. This race also breeds in Iceland, south-east Greenland and southern Norway. But it does not spend winter with us. Instead it leaves in August and travels down the coast of Europe to spend winter West Africa.

Another race of dunlins breeds in north-east Greenland. This is only a passage migrant to the UK. It visits our shores during spring and autumn to refuel – also on its way to west Africa.

The third race of dunlins to visit the UK breeds in northern Scandinavia and Russia. This is our commonest race, since up to 700,000 spend the winter here. They arrive in autumn and form huge flocks on large estuaries such as the Wash and Morecambe bay, before heading back to their breeding grounds in spring.

To make things even more complicated, the timing of a dunlin’s migration also depends upon its age and sex. Females leave the breeding grounds first, while males stay behind to look after the young. 

About 20 days after hatching, the young can look after themselves and the males leave. The young follow when they are ready – reaching the UK by October. Dunlins always return to the same wintering sites and can live for up to 19 years.