Arctic Dunlin ssp. arctica

Identification and stuff

Sometimes called “Greenland Dunlin” the  breeding range of some 10-15,000 birds is often said to be restricted to NE Greenland. However the small population numbering 10-100 pairs on Svalbard seems (unsurprisingly) also to be of this form, e.g. see photos here.

Dunlin are bread and butter birds. Have been for me since Frodsham Marsh, Cheshire and the late 1970’s. Easy to see, cram-jammed with information. 3 forms pass though Britain and 2-3 rarer taxa from N America and Siberia could occur and have been claimed. They are the launch pad for finding other rare wader species (especially ‘calidrids‘). That’s why they still draw me and I can while away hours watching flocks, especially when they come close. The 2 commoner forms passing through Britain are the ‘Southern Dunlin’ ssp. schinzii and the ‘Northern Dunlin’ ssp. alpina. As an example, Spurn will have c 4000 Dunlin passing through in July and nearly all will be schinzii. Come later in the autumn the ratio will change as alpina numbers start to build up. Most of the wintering birds on the Humber will then be alpina.

Claiming the much scarcer Arctic Dunlin ssp. arctica seems to be generally given a wide birth- at least on the east coast. Following a bout of west and NW winds in late May I expected I might come across an arctica candidate or two. I think I did! Both the weather and time of year (late May/ early June) gave me confidence. This bird at Beacon Ponds looked spot on to me. Have a look:

Characters of Arctic Dunlin

Here’s the list of features I look for on one of these. n.b. On birds in full summer plumage in May/June.

  • Average smaller size and especially noticeable rather short bill
  • Looks overall paler lacking string rufous/ orangey tones above
  • Bright white ground colour to breast (also on sides of head)
  • Breast streaking thin and weak looking
  • Black Belly patch small and often with obvious pale tips to black feathers
  • Upperparts especially scapulars include

1)      rather large areas of black in feather

2)      some grey (not rufous)  feathers with black centres

3)      paler + duller orange-brown/ buff/yellowy fringes to some scaps (‘silver and gold’)

4)      more obvious straw coloured ‘braces’ on scapular fringes (as on juveniles)

Get all those combined on one bird and I will usually claim it!

First summer shinzii

Often the sticking point. First summer (or not fully moulted) schinzii do look a bit similar. However feather like only black spotting on belly, retained winter scapulars and a bird that is clearly not the full shilling in terms of summer plumage usually sort these I think.

Here’s what I would call first summer Northern Dunlin ssp. alpina. It has the more obvious alpina scapular pattern. Black centre, firey orange fringe, bold white tip. BUT some plain grey winter type scapulars are present and the belly patch is just black spotting. Beacon Ponds 19th June 2011.

Sure there are caveats, not the least of which is, I am still learning! I like to come up with list of criteria as above and then test them. It help me learn and keeps me looking.

The bird below was with a little posse of northern bound waders. A Sanderling, some obvious ‘Northern Dunlins’ and this baby. All at Pugney’s C.P, West Yorkshire  in the last week of May 2008. This also seem to me to be an Arctic Dunlin, if a little less obvious. The browner streaked nape making it a female, versus the contrastingly grey-naped male (at Spunr ) above. It’s with a pretty obvious alpina (on the left) in the first photo (and I personally find here is an overlap zone in characters between brighter shinzii/ duller alpina so I don’t try to ID them all by any means!). Have a look for the features for arctica I listed both in the Spurn bird above and the Pugney’s bird below:

9 thoughts on “Arctic Dunlin ssp. arctica

  1. Steve Blain

    An interesting post – thanks!

    I’ve found finding good information about arctica very difficult to come by. The books tend to gloss over it, in favour of the more obvious alpina and schinzii, and yet it certainly occurs in the UK in reasonable numbers. Even finding photos on the web of arctica is difficult, and many of them have the ‘possible’ caveat. I sometimes wonder why birders aren’t sometimes bolder with their id – if you’re on the west coast and you see an arctica candidate, which is it more likely to be – a small, pale schinzii or actually an arctica? Just how small and pale do schinzii get? It would be lovely to see some more photos of arctica candidates from the west coast, where they must be commoner (or at least that is what I’m lead to believe)?

    Anyhow, I find all this stuff fascinating – keep it up, Martin!

    And for anyone interested, I found an arctica candidate in Bedfordshire in 2008, albeit in August:

    1. Martin Garner

      Great stuff Steve- I was almost going to use words very similar to use- whey are we not a little bolder?. I have what I think is an adult in August from Donegal which I will try and post soon…

      Your bird is amazingly short billed

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  3. Jim Clarke

    Thanks for this informative post Martin; really helped with firming up the ID of at least 3 arctica at Orgreave Lakes on 11/05/14.

    1. Martin Garner Post author

      Hi Gyorgy off top off my head I am not sure. Dick Newell I think had shots of breeding birds from there


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