As I am currently in Scotland seeing amazing species difficult to find anywhere else in Britain I thought it would be apt to focus this post on a bird whose very small breeding population in this country is focused on a few Scottish islands. Two days ago I visited one of these islands in Shetland and saw this rare and beautiful animal with my own eyes for the first time.
Phalaropus lobatus or Red-necked Phalarope is a tiny wading bird no bigger than a Dunlin, though they can occasionally be found at coastal sites or reservoirs around Britain in winter as they migrate or go off course, it only has a breeding population of around 25 pairs. I went in search of this little marvel at an RSPB site on Fetlar, the marsh here was alive with displaying Snipe ‘drumming’ non-stop by careering through the air with vibrating tails erect. Scanning the pools from the hide revealed nothing at first, not a Phalarope to be seen, then after 15 minutes of patient scanning a small sharp-winged bird fell out of the sky and landed in a sedge-fringed channel. Through my bins I could clearly see the bright-red curved stripe on the slender neck and the delicate needle-bill; it was a Phalarope. But this fairy of the bog graced the water for only a few seconds before shooting off into the stiff wind again and vanishing over a nearby hill, gone but certainly not forgotten.
- British Phalaropes migrate with the North American population to their wintering grounds on the tropical seas off the coast of Mexico and Chile – this involves flying 16,000 miles across the Atlantic to the north of Canada, down the west coast of America then onward. Crazy for such a small bird.
- Red-necked Phalaropes exhibit reverse sexual-dimorphism; the female is more brightly plumaged and is larger, she chooses a male, mates and lays the eggs but then leaves the male to raise the chicks himself while she does the same with other males.
- Although Phalaropes are waders they are unusual in being adapted for a pelagic life with lobed feet for swimming and a long, thin bill for picking tiny crustaceans or insects from the surface of the water – they spend all winter on the open ocean.
- Predominantly an arctic breeding species their global range covers North America, Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia and the tundra of Russia with Britain being the far southern edge.
- They are red-listed in the UK due to their small population size which is threatened by drainage of suitable breeding pools, predation and climate change.
- They have an unusual feeding technique in that they will swim in a tight circle to disturb the silt of a shallow pool and peck in the center to eat any disturbed invertebrates.