Unlike many wading bird species, in red-necked phalaropes the traditional roles are reversed. The female is larger, brighter and leaves parental care of the young to the drabber, smaller male. Also, unusual for waders, red-necked phalaropes spend up to 9 months at sea once breeding in the upper northern hemisphere is complete.
During the breeding season, female red-necked phalaropes have more vivid coloring than their duller male counterparts. They have a rich black head, neck, and breast, punctuated by a bold red patch that runs down the side of the neck, from which the species gets its name.
Red-necked phalarope females have a white chin and throat and a small white spot above the eye. Their flanks are grey and their wings a darker grey. The mantle and scapulars (upper wings) are dark grey, edged with buff, which creates a golden stripe at the top of the wing.
The belly is a mottled white and brownish grey, the legs are grayish-blue and their bill is fine, slim, and black. Toes are lobed, which provides extra thrust when swimming.
Breeding males have similar markings to females but are more washed out, and not as striking. The red neck patch is usually visible, but smaller and less bright, and in some birds it is absent. Males have altogether more brown coloring and are smaller and lighter than females.
In the non-breeding season, the plumage of males and females changes to a less notable grey and white. The upper back is mid-grey, and the white flanks are streaked with grey. The breast, belly, chin, and head are white, with a blackish patch at the rear of the crown, and a dark stripe that runs from the eye towards the back of the head. Tail feathers are grey, edged with white.
Juvenile red-necked phalaropes have dark brown upperparts, including the nape, back, crown, tail, and eye stripe. The breast and belly are buff-tan with a slight pinkish wash, and their shoulder feathers are edged with orange. Juvenile red-necked phalaropes have whitish underparts, but gain their full adult plumage by the end of their first year.
Red-Necked Phalarope, breeding plumage
Red-Necked Phalarope, non-breeding plumage
The smallest of the three phalarope species, red-necked phalaropes are also one of the world’s smallest seabirds. Males are typically smaller and lighter than females although there is some overlap between the sexes.
Red-Necked Phalarope standing by the waters edge
A common call of red-necked phalaropes is a repetitive series of ‘pip-pip-pip’ single notes. Contact calls include a metallic ‘plunk’ and a ‘wedu-wedu’ that is heard mostly during courtship and nest building.
Red-Necked Phalarope in natural habitat
On breeding grounds, the main element of a red-necked phalarope’s diet is invertebrates, especially flies, their larvae and eggs, beetles and spiders. At sea, copepods and other tiny crustaceans are eaten, as well as gastropods, molluscs, fish eggs and seeds of marine plants.
An interesting feeding tactic is used by red-necked phalaropes when feeding on shallow waters. They use their feet to kick themselves around, creating a spinning motion which in turn churns up any invertebrates and crustaceans living in the water below and brings them swirling to the surface, making it easier to catch.
Red-necked phalarope chicks are able to walk shortly after hatching and accompany the male to foraging grounds to feed themselves.
Insects are important on breeding grounds, with young red-necked phalaropes picking flies, beetles and their larvae from overhead vegetation. They usually only begin to eat fish as they embark on their fall migrations.
Red-Necked Phalarope feeding along the shore
Breeding grounds of red-necked phalaropes are found on tundra landscapes across the Arctic. Forested areas and pools lined with grass, sedge, or moss are popular nesting sites, as well as freshwater marshes and bogs. Expanses of coastal moorland and floodplains may also be selected as breeding sites.
Winters are spent at sea, with warm tropical waters providing ample foraging opportunities for red-necked phalaropes to feed on marine plankton and other aquatic life. As they spend a lot of time on the open sea, they rarely come into contact with humans and can be unexpectedly tame on the rare occasions that they do cross paths.
Red-necked phalaropes breed across the northernmost region of North America, within the Arctic Circle and as far south as the Labrador coast of Newfoundland. To the east, breeding occurs around the coast of Greenland, Iceland, the Shetland Isles off the northern coast of Scotland, and through the extreme north of Scandinavia through northern Russia, Siberia, and the Kamchatka Peninsula.
Winters are spent offshore in four specific regions. In the Pacific Ocean, the northernmost winter region is concentrated on the coastal waters off Mexico and throughout the southern edge of Central America. Further south, marine waters off the coast of Peru and around the Galapagos Isles welcome the largest numbers of migrating red-necked phalaropes.
To the east, a stretch of water in the Arabian Sea, south of Oman and Yemen is the winter destination of some Scandinavian breeding populations. Eastern Siberian breeding populations spend winters at sea around the Philippines and New Guinea.
The global population of red-necked phalaropes was estimated at up to 4.5 million individuals in 2015. Of these, upwards of 2 million breed in Canada and 42,000 in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. The European population is estimated at between 590,000 to 1,280,000 individuals, with the majority in Russia, but up to 50,000 pairs in Iceland, 10,000 to 20,000 pairs in Finland, and 10,000 to 25,000 pairs in Sweden.
Spotting a red-necked phalarope would certainly count as a rare sighting, due to the species’ preference of spending a long period of the year out at sea and the remaining few months at inaccessible breeding grounds in the high Arctic.
Sightings are not unheard of though, and perhaps most likely during spring and autumn passage. In the UK, there are only around 64 breeding males, and a further 30 arrive from Scandinavia in the autumn to break their journey south.
Red-necked Phalaropes swimming in the sea
Alaska is the only US state with breeding red-necked phalaropes, but regular sightings along the Pacific Coast are reported during spring and fall migration passage.
Popular staging areas for onward migration to the ocean waters off Peru and Chile can also be found further inland. Each year, reports of tens of thousands of red-necked phalaropes are recorded at Mono Lake in California and up to 240,000 at Utah’s Great Salt Lake.
Eastern Canada offers some of the most concentrated breeding grounds of red-necked phalaropes, with up to 3 million reported at lower Pasamaquoddy Bay, New Brunswick in 1978 and a further 1 million recorded at the Quoddy region of Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick.
A small number of red-necked phalaropes breed in Shetland each year, with an average of 64 breeding males counted raising young on an annual basis.
Sightings are limited to between May, when the earliest females arrive or passage migrants pass through on their way further north, and September, when the last juvenile birds may be spotted as they head south.
Red-necked Phalaropes standing rocks near to the sea
The oldest ringed individual bird identified from ringing records reached the age of 12 years and 10 months. The average lifespan for the species is believed to be around 5 years, with breeding occurring for the first time at one year.
Arctic foxes, red foxes, short-tailed weasels, and Arctic ground squirrels are the main land predators encountered by nesting red-necked phalaropes on their breeding grounds. Avian predators of eggs include parasitic jaegers, sharp-shinned hawks, glaucous gulls and sandhill cranes.
At sea, records exist of dolphins preying on red-necked phalaropes, and aerial attacks by birds of prey and predatory seabirds, including jaegers, are not uncommon.
Red-necked phalaropes are protected under the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA) and as an Annex I species in the EU Birds Directive.
In the UK, they are classed as a Schedule I species in the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981, legislation which makes it an offense to interfere with nesting birds or their eggs or young, or to kill, capture or injure a red-necked phalarope. Similar levels of protection are ensured by the Canadian Migratory Birds Convention Act and the Migratory Birds Treaty Act of 1918 in the United States.
While the red-necked phalarope is classified as a species of least concern across its global range, numbers are thought to be declining since the 1980s, and in the UK they are registered as a Red status species on the British Birds of Conservation Concern list.
Habitat loss and degradation caused by peat extraction and coastal drainage projects may impact the population security of the species in the near future.
Red-necked Phalaropes in natural habitat
Red-necked phalaropes lay their eggs in a basic shallow scrape on the bare ground close to water. Nesting sometimes occurs in areas with barely any plant cover, as well as landscapes with thickets, sedge clumps, and grassy hummocks that offer some camouflage against predators.
Females arrive on breeding grounds ahead of males, and pairing usually occurs immediately after arrival. Eggs are typically laid between late May and early June, with females departing on migration once the clutch is complete. Incubation and care for the young is the sole responsibility of the male. Hatching occurs after around 21 days.
Red-necked phalaropes lay up to four pale olive-light brown eggs, covered in dense dark brown scrawls. Eggs are pointed, measuring 29 mm by 21 mm (1.1 in by 0.8 in).
Red-necked phalaropes have a pretty unique approach to mating and pair bonds do not last beyond around 10 or 11 days, often ending once the final egg has been laid. Females then leave the nest site and the male incubates and raises young alone.
Occasionally the female will breed again with a different mate before embarking on the migration south. New pairings form at the start of the breeding season, and it’s unlikely that previous mates will reunite.
Red-necked Phalarope in nesting habitat
Red-necked Phalarope chick walking through grass
While they are generally classed as a non-territorial species, occasionally female red-necked phalaropes will show aggression towards other females attempting to use the same pond for foraging during the breeding season. No territorial or aggressive behavior is shown by males.
Red-necked Phalarope foraging in seaweed on the coast
Red-necked phalaropes have a particularly short breeding season – arrivals begin in May, and females start leaving in June, with males and juveniles following in July. The post-breeding period is spent at sea, foraging on open tropical waters until spring, when migration to return to the northern breeding grounds begins again.
Red-necked phalaropes seem to have a stronger preference for life on the water than on land and depart as soon as they can after their role in the breeding process is complete. They spend up to 9 months at sea, feeding on the ocean waters where their main prey is marine plankton.
Arctic breeding grounds are not suitable for sustaining red-necked phalaropes all year round, and they appear to head off at the earliest possible opportunity.
The main wintering regions favored by red-necked phalaropes are found off the coast of Peru and Chile, in the tropical waters of the Pacific Ocean, the Arabian Sea, and in South East Asia. Migrations take place both over land and water, with red-necked phalaropes regularly breaking their journeys at inland stopovers.
Hyperborean Phalarope, Northern Phalarope
Family:Sandpipers, snipes and phalaropes
17cm to 19cm
32cm to 41cm
27g to 48g
The Eurasian woodcock spends days roosting in dense, damp woodland undergrowth, and evenings and nights foraging in open fields as well as woods for worms and beetles.
The UKs breeding population of Wood Sandpipers are limited to an area of swampy marshland in the Highlands of northern Scotland, although they are far more commonly sighted in passage during their spring and autumn migrations as they make brief stopovers in southern and eastern England.
A long-legged wader, closely related to the curlew, the Eurasian whimbrel, has small breeding populations established on the Scottish islands of Shetland and Orkney. Migrating whimbrels may be spotted along Britain’s coastlines as they undertake long-distance migration flights between Arctic tundra breeding grounds and wintering territories in Africa.
The Ruddy Turnstone is an attractive shorebird, frequently seen flipping stones in search of small creatures sheltering beneath. These long-distance migrants visit temperate and tropical coastlines across the globe but return to the Arctic each year to nest.
One of the smallest wading bird species to visit British shores, the Temminck’s stint is now classed as a ‘former breeder’ in the UK, with breeding pairs no longer regularly observed. Passage migrants may still be seen, particularly on the eastern coast in May.
Spotted redshanks have a distinctive black spotted summer plumage that UK residents are unlikely to see in birds on British shores, as the species is only a rare winter visitor or spotted in migration passage. Several hundred spotted redshanks make brief stopovers on British coastal wetlands each year, en-route to and from breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle.
The Snipe is a common but shy wader seen throughout the United Kingdom. These cryptic birds make a living by probing marshy ground for invertebrates in the mud below.
Sanderlings run tirelessly along sandy beaches, rushing down to feed as the waves recede and sprinting back, seemingly hoping to keep their feet dry. Their comical antics and non-descript looks belie an impressive avian that makes remarkable migrations between Arctic nesting grounds and overwintering grounds as distant as the southern tips of South America and South Africa.
A rare breeding wading bird in the UK, ruffs are among the most intriguing bird species on Earth, due to the diversity not just between males and females, but also between the three distinctly different types of males that occur.
Named for its red-orange legs, the Redshank is a common and noisy wader of the United Kingdom. These wary birds are present throughout the year, although they are most numerous in the winter non-breeding season.
A hardy wading bird that thrives in the bleak Arctic tundra landscapes of northeastern Canada, Greenland and Iceland, purple sandpipers arrive on wintering grounds along the northeastern coast of the United States and the UK each autumn, to forage for molluscs and crustaceans on rocky shores and coastal headlands.
Pectoral Sandpipers are mid-sized waders that breed on wet tundra landscapes across the northernmost extremes of North America and the Siberian Arctic. Their epic annual migration return trips of up to 30,000 km are one of the most lengthy of any bird species, similar to those undertaken by the Arctic tern.
One of the world’s smallest wading birds, little stints cover enormous distances on their annual migrations between breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle and winter territories in southern Africa and South Asia. A handful of individual birds spend winter in the UK, and records of vagrant birds reaching North America are occasionally reported.
Red knots, known simply as ‘knots’ in the UK are medium-sized shorebirds that undertake impressive annual migrations of up to 30,000 km (18,000 mi) each year between Arctic breeding grounds and southern coastal wintering habitats.
Highly camouflaged and elusive, the jack snipe is a small wading bird that spends winters on mudflats and freshwater wetlands across Britain. Smaller and less common than the UK’s other native snipe, the common snipe, jack snipes are harder to spot due to their tendency to crouch low and remain hidden among reeds.
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.
A medium wading bird, named after its brightly coloured legs, the greenshank breeds in northern Scotland, as well as further to the east across Scandinavia and Russia. In winter, an influx of greenshanks descends upon wetlands and marshes and along the coast of south-west England, Wales, Ireland and north-east Scotland. Tens of thousands of birds migrate significantly further afield, reaching the coasts of Australia, Indonesia and South Africa.
Green sandpipers are stocky shorebirds similar to the common sandpiper. They spend winters at inland freshwater wetlands in southern Europe and northern and central Africa after raising their young in swampy forests and wet woodland landscapes across northern Europe.
The Dunlin is a small wading bird from the sandpiper family Scolopacidae. Dunlins breed across North America and northern Europe, and Asia and are one of the most widely distributed wading birds, with ten subspecies.
Identified as being from a group of birds known as Waders, within North America they are generally referred to as Shorebirds. This monotypic species, a long distance migrant, is considered to have an Amber Conservation Status otherwise known as Near Threatened.
The largest European wading bird, the Eurasian curlew is easy to identify with its elongated bow-shaped bill and spindly legs. In winter groups of curlews known as ‘curfews’ forage together in coastal wetlands, and up to 66,000 pairs breed in the UK and are resident all year round.
Belonging to a group of birds generally called waders or shorebirds, the common sandpiper prefers freshwater habitats as opposed to saltwater locations.
An impressive, proud looking wader with particularly fine summer plumage which migrates south from its northern breeding grounds from July to October, returning for the summer from late February through April.
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