The word dunlin is a dialect form of dunling, the earliest name for this species, first used in the early 1530s. “Dun” means dull brown and “ling” indicates the person or thing has the given trait. Indeed, dunlins (Calidris alpina) are dull brown shorebirds during the winter. However, this monotypic species has distinctive breeding plumage. In summer dunlins have reddish backs, whitish, finely streaked underparts and a conspicuous black belly patch. Their long bills droop at the tip.
Dunlins breed in wet tundra, especially where there are hummocks and low ridges, of the circumpolar Arctic and subarctic. In the Western Hemisphere they are short-distance migrators. Those nesting in Alaska and Canada migrate to the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of North America. Some dunlin that breed in far northwestern Alaska overwinter in China and Japan. Outside of the breeding season dunlin are gregarious, roosting and foraging in large flocks.
In summer, dunlin forage the tundra for insects and their larvae. While on tidal flats, beaches and inland lake shores, ponds and flooded fields in winter, they consume intertidal worms, snails and other mollusks, small crustaceans and occasionally small fish. Dunlin will sometimes eat seeds and leaves.
Dunlin only briefly pass through our area during migration. So we were excited to see large dunlin flocks foraging along the Eagle Pole Loop in Ash Creek Wildlife Area (Lassen County CA) two days ago. As can be seen in the one photograph, American avocets (Recurvirostra americana) have also returned for the summer.