Grey Phalarope

Phalaropus fulicarius

The grey phalarope’s winter and summer plumage are so distinctly different that the species is known by an entirely different name in the US. In the UK, the bird’s name reflects its post-breeding plumage, which is dominated by light grey and white. However, in the US, it is known as the red phalarope, after the more vibrant orange-red plumage seen during the breeding season.

Grey Phalarope

Grey Phalarope

Grey Phalarope in winter plumage

Grey Phalarope in winter plumage

Juvenile Grey Phalarope

Juvenile Grey Phalarope

Appearance & Identification

What do Grey Phalaropes look like?

Grey phalaropes have striking breeding plumage, which contrasts hugely with their grey-and-white gull-like appearance in winter months. During the breeding season, males and females are unalike, with females more colourful than males.

In summer, male grey phalaropes have a chestnut-red belly, breast and cheeks, and a black back, with feathers edged with buff, giving a patterned appearance. Their crown is streaked with black, and they have a large white eye patch and a yellow bill. In comparison to the female’s more vibrant appearance, males are more muted and dull.

Female grey phalaropes in breeding plumage have brighter, more vivid orange-red colouring than males. Their facial markings are bolder, with their crown a deeper solid black, and they have a wider white band around their eyes, which extends to the back of the head.

In non-breeding plumage, male and female grey phalaropes are alike: they have a white neck, face and underparts, with darker grey-black mottled wings, back and upper tail. A bold white wing bar is visible in flight. Their crown is streaked with dark grey and they have a slight black eye patch. Their bill is black with a faint yellow tinge, and their legs are grey.

Juvenile grey phalaropes’ upperparts are dark brown, streaked with white. Their underparts are mainly white but with a pinkish wash on the sides of the breast. Similar to adults in winter plumage, juveniles have a dark grey streaked crown, whitish-pink face and neck, and black markings next to their eyes.

Female Grey Phalarope in breeding plumage

Female Grey Phalarope in breeding plumage

How big are Grey Phalaropes?

As well as being more colourful than males, female grey phalaropes are also slightly larger. They rank as small-to-medium shorebirds, roughly the same size as a common sandpiper and dunlin and considerably smaller than a woodcock.

  • Length: 20 cm to 22 cm (7.9 in to 8.7 in)
  • Wingspan: 34 cm to 41 cm (13.4 in to 16.1 in)
  • Weight: 50 g to 75 g (1.8 oz to 2.6 oz)
Grey Phalarope foraging for food

Grey Phalarope foraging for food

Calls & Sounds

What sound does a Grey Phalarope make?

The most familiar call of a grey phalarope is heard on breeding grounds, is a wheezy ‘peet’ or a variation, used in alarm, excitement, or as a contact call.

In winter, occasional short, sharp ‘pit-pit-pit’ flight calls are heard at sea, but otherwise, they are relatively silent until they return to their breeding grounds.

Grey Phalarope swimming in natural habitat

Grey Phalarope swimming in natural habitat


What do Grey Phalaropes eat?

What grey phalaropes eat changes widely during the year, reflecting their different winter and summer habitats. In winter, their diet consists solely of marine zooplankton plucked from the surface of the ocean.

On summer breeding grounds, the diet changes to become more focused on small insects and their larvae, in particular midges and cranefly larvae.

They swim on the waves with a spinning motion, which helps to bring insects to the surface, making them easier to pick up with their short slender bills.

Plant material is also sometimes eaten while grey phalarope forage on marshes for seeds if other sources of food are limited. Post-breeding, crustaceans and other aquatic creatures, including tadpoles and water snails, from freshwater marshes become more important.

What do Grey Phalarope chicks eat?

Chicks follow a similar diet to adults from the outset, feeding on crane flies, caddisflies and midges. Parents do not feed their young but they are led to marshy foraging ground by the male after hatching where they quickly learn the skills needed to catch insects.

Grey Phalarope feeding on insects

Grey Phalarope feeding on insects

Habitat & Distribution

What is the habitat of a Grey Phalarope?

Grey phalaropes breed on high Arctic tundra landscapes, in marshy landscapes, including damp meadows and the fringes of lagoons. Coastal regions, particularly isolated environments such as fiords, and boggy islets offer ideal nesting spots.

Winters are spent at sea, with birds rarely coming inland as the ocean waters meet all of their foraging needs. Occasionally, particularly after stormy weather and high winds, grey phalaropes may temporarily turn up at inland lakes and reservoirs, having been blown off course.

What is the range of a Grey Phalarope?

In North America, where the species is known as a red phalarope, breeding is limited to the west and north coast of Alaska, along the entire northern coast of mainland Canada, from Yukon to Newfoundland, as well as on the Arctic islands of Nunavut and Northwest Territories, as well as in a small region in south-west Greenland.

Grey phalaropes arrive in Iceland, the Svalbard Archipelago, Novaya Zemlya and Siberian Russia to breed each spring. No breeding is established in continental Europe.

Winters are spent offshore, in coastal waters along the Pacific Coast of North and South America, as well as in the eastern Caribbean region, and along the Atlantic coast of West Africa and South Africa.

Where do Grey Phalaropes live?

The global population of grey (or red) phalaropes is estimated to be around 5 million, with 3.4 million adult birds and 1.6 million juveniles. Of these, up to 2.5 million live in North America, with 750,000 in Alaska, 500,000 in Canada, and around 1.9 million in Russia.

Estimates at sea are more difficult to ascertain, but around 700,000 individuals are believed to pass through the Bering Sea and large numbers spend winter in the Atlantic Ocean waters, up to 300 km (200 mi) off the coast of West Africa.

Grey Phalarope feeding at the edge of the shore

Grey Phalarope feeding at the edge of the shore

How rare are Grey Phalaropes?

With an estimated global population of up to 5 million individual birds, grey phalaropes are not especially rare, yet their range and habitat preferences make it unlikely that you’ll spot one inland, unless you’re visiting the bleak Arctic tundra landscapes during their breeding season.

Landfall may be made after heavy storms or gales, with birds blown inland, but they will quickly look to return to their preferred ocean water environment.

In the UK, they can regularly be spotted in passage from September to November, but most frequently remain a fair distance off the coast, foraging in open marine waters.

Where can you see Red Phalaropes in North America?

An estimated 1 to 2.5 million red phalaropes live in North America, with the largest number breeding annually in Alaska and Canada. Nunavut’s Prince Charles Island is believed to host around 283,200 breeding pairs annually, while around 23,000 pairs breed at Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Where can you see Grey Phalaropes in the UK?

Grey phalaropes can be seen off the coast of the UK during their autumn migration, with around 200 sightings reported annually.

The best time to see these elusive seabirds is following a storm, when strong winds and unsettled weather may blow them off course, with some individuals briefly appearing at inland wetlands. Locations that may offer the best chances of a sighting include the southern and eastern coasts of England and Scotland.

Grey Phalarope in search of food in shallow waters

Grey Phalarope in search of food in shallow waters

Lifespan & Predation

How long do Grey Phalaropes live?

Ring recoveries of grey phalaropes are particularly rare, making it difficult to judge how long is the typical lifespan of a grey phalarope, or identify how old the oldest recorded individual was. Breeding is assumed to happen for the first time at 1 year. Some evidence suggests that adult birds can live for at least 5 or 6 years.

What are the predators of Grey Phalaropes?

On breeding grounds, the largest threat to grey phalaropes comes in the form of Arctic and red foxes, weasels, polar bears, gyrfalcons, peregrine falcons and skuas. Sandhill cranes and ground squirrels are common raiders of grey phalaropes’ nests.

Despite using a technique to flatten their body against the water’s surface and avoid predators at sea, grey phalaropes may also be targeted by Arctic skuas (parasitic jaegers) and glaucous gulls during winter.

Are Grey Phalaropes protected?

Grey phalaropes are included in the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981, which protects the species against being killed, injured, or taken into captivity. In the United States, red phalaropes and their eggs and young are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

Are Grey Phalaropes endangered?

Precise population estimates for grey phalaropes are hard to determine due to the extensive periods they spend offshore and their breeding grounds in areas largely inaccessible to humans.

The global number of grey phalaropes is roughly estimated to be up to 5 million individuals, with the species classed as of least concern.

Grey Phalarope preening itself

Grey Phalarope preening itself

Nesting & Breeding

Where do Grey Phalaropes nest?

Grey phalaropes build their nests within a short distance of coastal waters, on marshy tundra landscapes, usually concealed by hummocks and other low-level vegetation.

The nest itself is a shallow scrape on the ground, lined with mosses, grasses, stones, lichen and feathers.

When do Grey Phalaropes nest?

Laying begins in late May in southern Alaska and extends through June (northern Canada) and between June to mid-July in Iceland and Russia.

Incubation takes 18 to 21 days, and the young are almost immediately able to leave the nest. Parental care by the male usually continues until the hatchlings are ready to fledge, from 16 to 20 days, although the young may be abandoned at any time after hatching.

What do Grey Phalarope eggs look like?

Grey phalaropes lay three to four pale olive or olive-brown eggs, heavily marked with brown specks and blotches. Eggs, which are glossy and smooth, measure 31 mm by 22 mm (1.2 in by 0.9 in) and are incubated by the male alone for 18 to 20 days.

Do Grey Phalaropes mate for life?

Grey phalaropes do not generally form long-term pairs, and it’s far more normal for them to go their separate ways as incubation begins.

Frequently males outnumber females, which leads to polyandry, with females breeding with more than one male each season. Females leave their eggs in the sole care of the male, and disperse from the nest site, often in search of a new mate.

Grey Phalarope walking along the waters edge

Grey Phalarope walking along the waters edge


Are Grey Phalaropes aggressive?

Aggressive interaction between male grey phalaropes is at its height during the breeding season, particularly when there are more available males than females vying for a mate.

Physical contact is not unheard of, with confrontational flight displays, biting, striking with wings and pushing with feet on their rival’s back. These clashes may be brief but are also notoriously vocal.

Where do Grey Phalaropes sleep at night?

Grey phalaropes spend winters at sea, sleeping on the waves’ surface each night and feeding by day.

Grey Phalarope feeding in the wetlands

Grey Phalarope feeding in the wetlands


Do Grey Phalaropes migrate?

Grey phalaropes breed on Arctic shores and then spend winters at sea, migrating south from breeding grounds between July and November. They are a fully migratory species and are not year-round residents in any part of the world.

Are Red Phalaropes native to North America?

Red phalaropes breed across the northernmost regions of the continent, from Alaska in the west through northern Canada to the extreme northern tip of Newfoundland in the east.

After breeding, they head south to wintering grounds off the west coast of Mexico and off South America’s Pacific coast.

Are Grey Phalaropes native to the UK?

Around 200 grey phalaropes are spotted in the UK during migration southwards from their Arctic breeding grounds.

They are only temporary residents, on their way to tropical ocean waters in the southern hemisphere: no grey phalaropes are not native to Britain, and neither do they remain there all year round.

Grey Phalarope in natural habitat

Grey Phalarope in natural habitat


Are Brant and Grey Phalaropes the same?

Brant (known in the UK as Brent geese) and grey phalaropes are not the same species. Brant are geese, and grey phalaropes are shorebirds that breed in the Arctic and migrate southwards in winter.

Is a Grey Phalarope a Canada goose?

The grey phalarope is an entirely different species to a Canada goose. Canada geese are geese, while grey phalaropes are wading birds, related to sandpipers.

How did the Grey Phalarope get its name?

The grey phalarope’s name has Latin roots, with the word “Phalaropus” derived from Ancient Greek words meaning ‘coot’ and ‘foot’.

This reflects the lobed toes of grey phalaropes, also seen in coots. The ‘grey’ part of their name comes from their winter plumage, while in North America, they are known as ‘red phalaropes’ in recognition of their more eye-catching orange-red breeding plumage.

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Quick Facts


Scientific name:

Phalaropus fulicarius

Other names:

Red Phalarope


Sandpipers, snipes and phalaropes

Conservation status:




20cm to 22cm


34cm to 41cm


50g to 75g

Other birds in the Sandpipers, snipes and phalaropes family

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