SPRING TRANS­FOR­MA­TION

Bird Watching (UK) - - Species Knot & Dun­lin -

Many a bird­watcher, while strug­gling in mid­win­ter to sep­a­rate the waders by sight, would have a very dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence as spring and sum­mer ap­proach, be­cause sud­denly these birds are ut­terly trans­formed. The Knot, in par­tic­u­larly, blushes into a star­tling brick-red, the sort that only a daft ‘celebrity makeover luvvie’ would use to paint an in­te­rior. Mean­while the Dun­lin goes for rich chest­nut off­set by a bold black belly; the ef­fect ought to be im­pres­sive, but, in a way, it just looks as though it has mis­tak­enly taken a bath in ink. Over­all though, it is al­most as though these birds are over-com­pen­sat­ing in spring to be dif­fer­ent from their win­ter selves, so very dis­tinct do these rel­a­tives look. To go with their star­tling makeover is the voice. Knots, you may have no­ticed, are re­mark­ably quiet birds in win­ter, es­pe­cially in com­par­i­son to Red­shanks and Oys­ter­catch­ers, which are the loud­mouths of the es­tu­ary. The best they can muster is an un­der-the­breath mur­mur. In the breed­ing ar­eas, how­ever, freed from the cramped con­di­tions of their fa­mous flocks, Knots rel­ish fight­ing for their ter­ri­tory on the tun­dra, and lift into the cold Arc­tic air in song-flight ut­ter­ing a clear, re­peated ‘coo-ee’ with vari­a­tions, sound­ing a lit­tle like an elec­tronic alarm – per­haps a car alarm – go­ing off. The Dun­lin, mean­while, has a rushed and hur­ried flight-song, which ac­cel­er­ates into a blast like a ref­eree’s whis­tle, a longer ver­sion of their fa­mil­iar buzzing call on an es­tu­ary. And while Knots in­vari­ably cast their ter­ri­to­ries over the more ex­treme Arc­tic tun­dra, up as far as 81°N in Green­land, Dun­lin breed in all kinds of cli­matic con­di­tions, even on boggy moor­land in the UK. The dif­fer­ence is stark: while a Knot could in the­ory spot a po­lar bear while in­cu­bat­ing, Bri­tish Dun­lin will have more be­nign com­pany such as sheep and cows. Knots are es­sen­tially birds of dry tun­dra, while Dun­lin usu­ally go for much wet­ter ar­eas. And the Knot ex­hibits an un­usual nest­ing quirk, pre­fer­ring to nest in clumps of a plant called Dryas (one of which is the Moun­tain Avens).

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