Bird Fact Friday – Red-necked Phalaropes

Adapted from pages 60-62 of Far From Land:

Red-necked Phalaropes are charming small waders that spend the summer on northern tarns where, in a reversal of typical roles, the brighter females court a drabber male, lay a clutch, and then devolve all incubating duties onto him. Come winter and the phalaropes qualify as seabirds, spending their days in small flocks picking titbits from the surface. It had always been assumed that the small number of British phalaropes joined greater numbers of their kind from northern Russia to spend the winter in the seas south of Arabia, a known stronghold. By 2012, geolocators had become small enough to be attached safely to phalaropes, of which ten were duly tagged on the Shetland island of Fetlar. One was spotted back on Fetlar the following summer.

Birdwatchers were amazed when it was discovered that a tracked Red-necked Phalarope, breeding in the Shetland Isles, had spent the winter in the equatorial Pacific. Illustration by Bruce Pearson.

Malcie Smith, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’ Fetlar warden takes up the story. “We knew through experience that using a walk-in trap was almost always successful with incubating male phalaropes, so I was confident of success and, sure enough, we got our hands on his tag the following morning. We had a well-deserved dram of Scotland’s finest that night!

“There was a bit of a problem with having the data interpreted, with colleagues from the RSPB and the Swiss Ornithological Institute becoming involved in making sense of what was pretty messy data. I remember reading emails that included phrases like ‘impossible to interpret’ which was not encouraging. I was eventually given the ‘cleaned up’ details by email which nearly knocked me off my seat.”

The cause of Smith’s unseating was a track that took the bird west across the Atlantic from Shetland to Newfoundland. It then meandered along the eastern seaboard of North America, until crossing central America in mid-September. The next six winter months were spent in the eastern Pacific close to the Equator between continental Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands. Returning to Fetlar in spring, the phalarope more or less recapitulated its southbound route.

Since that study, further work has confirmed that phalaropes from Iceland and Greenland also winter in the Pacific while their fellow phalaropes breeding in northern Scandinavia do head to the Arabian Sea. Without question, this migratory split in the north-east Atlantic was wholly unanticipated.

Far From Land
Michael Brooke
With illustrations by Bruce Pearson

Seabirds evoke the spirit of the earth’s wildest places. They spend large portions of their lives at sea, often far from land, and nest on beautiful and remote islands that humans rarely visit. Thanks to the development of increasingly sophisticated and miniaturized devices that can track their every movement and behavior, it is now possible to observe the mysterious lives of these remarkable creatures as never before. This beautifully illustrated book takes you on a breathtaking journey around the globe to reveal where these birds actually go when they roam the sea, the tactics they employ to traverse vast tracts of ocean, the strategies they use to evade threats, and more.

Michael Brooke has visited every corner of the world in his lifelong pursuit of seabirds. Here, he draws on his own experiences and insights as well as the latest cutting-edge science to shed light on the elusive seafaring lives of albatrosses, frigatebirds, cormorants, and other ocean wanderers. Where do puffins go in the winter? How deep do penguins dive? From how far away can an albatross spot a fishing vessel worth following for its next meal? Brooke addresses these and other questions in this delightful book. Along the way, he reveals that seabirds are not the aimless wind-tossed creatures they may appear to be and explains the observational innovations that are driving this exciting area of research.

Featuring illustrations by renowned artist Bruce Pearson and packed with intriguing facts, Far from Land provides an extraordinary up-close look at the activities of seabirds.

This post is part of a series, explore additional posts here<< Bird Fact Friday – the Red-throated DiverBird Fact Friday – the Magnificent Frigatebird >>