Red-necked phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus)

French: Phalarope à bec étroit
SizeBody length: 18 cm
Wingspan: 31 – 34 cm
Weightup to 48 g

The red-necked phalarope is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1). It is protected under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and Annex 1 of the EC Birds Directive, and listed on Appendix II of the Bern Convention.

Phalaropes are waders, and unusual amongst birds in that the female is more brightly coloured than the male. This is chiefly because the male red-necked phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus) does all the work of incubation and, being a ground-nesting bird, he needs to be less conspicuous. In their breeding plumage, both sexes have a noticeable white cheek patch, with a predominantly dark-grey head and back. The male has a paler underside than the female, being almost entirely white, whereas females have a grey breast. The red neck, from which the species gets its common English name, is much more strongly marked on the female than the male. The bird’s plumage outside the breeding season is much less showy in both sexes, being mostly grey above and white below. They also have a black mark that extends through the eye.

Red-necked phalaropes have the widest range of all the phalaropes. Outside the breeding season, they can turn up almost anywhere in the northern hemisphere. They breed on the sub-arctic tundra of Europe, Asia and North America. In the UK, their already limited breeding range has been reduced even more over the last century. Once found on mainland Scotland as well as the Western Isles and Orkney, they are now almost entirely limited to the northern parts of the Shetland, in particular the islands of Fetlar and Unst.

During the birds’ breeding season, red-necked phalaropes are found around coastal pools, especially ones shallow enough to support plant growth, and with an abundance of insects. They also like areas with grasses and mosses surrounding open water. On migration they can occur on still waters of any size, though they are often seen on very small pools near the coast. During the winter they are found mainly at sea in warmer regions, often very far from land, where they feed on plankton rich upwellings.

Red-necked phalaropes reverse the role of the sexes in their behaviour as well as their plumage. The females are the first to arrive at the summer breeding sites, usually around the end of May, and will compete to secure the best nesting position. When the males arrive, the female will make her selection and, from then on, defend him against other females for as long as her eggs are being incubated. Once the chicks have hatched, the female deserts the male, and he alone will rear the young phalaropes. If there are enough male birds, females may mate with several, and even attempt to rear a second brood of chicks within the short Arctic (or sub-Arctic) breeding season. The pair bond between the birds is short-lived, however, and usually ends once the eggs hatch. The clutch consists of four eggs as a rule, laid in a nest with a grass lining built by both birds into a grass tussock. The eggs are oval in shape with one end sharply pointed, and are brown with dark-brown blotches, which serves to camouflage them against predators. After an incubation period of 18 to 20 days, the chicks emerge well developed and are able to leave the nest as soon as their down dries to follow their father to good feeding areas.

Phalaropes feed in a way that is unique amongst waders. They swim rapidly round in circles, picking off insects and other water-living creatures as they appear on the surface of the pool. For this purpose, their feet are only partially webbed or ‘semi-palmated’.

Red-necked phalaropes are not considered endangered on a world-wide scale, but their numbers as a British breeding bird have been in decline. This is thought to be due to loss of suitable pools within the birds’ traditional breeding sites as a result of grazing cessation; the consequent vegetation growth reduces the area of open water available for feeding. Drainage of pools and pollution through agricultural run-off is also thought to have contributed to the birds’ disappearance.

The red-necked phalarope is listed as a priority species in the UK Biodiversity Action Plans (UK BAP). About 85% of the British breeding population nests on RSPB nature reserves on the island of Fetlar in the Shetlands. Over the last two decades the RSPB, who are the lead agency for this species, have been conducting a survey into the habitat requirements of the phalaropes, and much of what they have learned is now being put into practice on their reserves. Currently, the RSPB are engaged in looking for other sites suitable for phalaropes, on which they can take over the management.

Traditionally, red-necked phalaropes bred in the Outer Hebrides, and there are still sites on North and South Uist suitable for the birds. Although there has been a problem with predation by the introduced hedgehog, it is hoped that the programme to remove and relocate these mammals will benefit many ground-nesting bird species.

For more information on the red-necked phalarope and other bird species:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1.  IUCN Red List (February, 2011)