The Search for Red-necked Phalaropes
by Graham Uney

Every year for the past fifteen or so I have kept a mental record of the wildlife I have seen and photographed in Britain, and every year so far one bird in particular has eluded all my attempts to find it. This is the red-necked phalarope, one of Britain's rarest breeding birds. The problem, you see, is that red-necked phalaropes are very particular about where they will choose to nest, to such an extent that of the 30 - 40 pairs that do nest here every year, 90% of these target just one location on the remote Shetland island of Fetlar, far out in the North Atlantic well off the Scottish north coast.

Red-necked Phalarope

Throughout Northern Europe red-necked phalaropes are numerous during the summer with numbers somewhere in the region of 100,000 pairs, but Scotland lies at the natural southern limit for these birds, and it is feared that numbers of the present Scottish population could easily take a swing the wrong way. It's nice for the naturalist to have a well know site to head for to see a particular bird, for indeed that's what I had to do to finally make my acquaintance with the phalarope in Britain, but should anything untoward happen to their precious habitat at the Loch of Funzie on Fetlar [pronounced 'Loch o' Finnie'], virtually the entire population would be wiped out in one fell swoop. Here on Fetlar the RSPB is carrying out work to encourage the phalaropes to nest at old established peat-cut ponds, and also at wetland sites specifically made for the purpose. This project is now starting to see some success.
A few pairs do nest elsewhere in Scotland, but their location is not widely available to the public in order to protect them from egg thieves, or indeed from disturbance at the nest, which would be detrimental to their breeding success.

Red-necked Phalarope at Fetlar

The red-necked phalarope is a very small wading bird that feeds by spinning quickly in the water to churn up tiny invertebrates into a vortex. Like a coot, phalaropes have lobed toes which helps them to swim, and autumn sees large congregations from all over Northern Europe gather in the North Sea prior to migrating south for the winter. The red-necked phalarope adults are notable for their sex role reversal during the nesting season, that is, after the eggs are laid the male takes on the responsibility of incubating them and raising the young until fledged, a process that takes around 40 days in total. The female is the more colourful of the pair, as the male needs to be well camouflaged to hide the whereabouts of the nest from predators during his long hours of sitting.

The red-necked phalarope is a 'Red List' species of high conservation concern and should not be disturbed under any circumstances. The best place to watch them during the nesting season is from the roadside at the Loch of Funzie RSPB Reserve on Fetlar, which is wardened throughout the season. There is a birdwatching hide here overlooking the Mires of Funzie which also attract a few nesting phalaropes. Please refrain from watching phalaropes at any other site.

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Pictures and text Copyright Graham Uney © 2002