This is a super bird, known as Grey Phalarope in Britain, where we see it in its non-breeding plumages, it changes from this mild-looking secret identity to become the bright Red Phalarope of the north, on account of its stunning breeding colours. A true pelagic species, it spends up to 11 months of the year at sea, only coming to land to nest.
Grey Phalaropes breed in the high Arctic: northern Siberia, Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Svalbard and Bear Island, with Iceland being the most southerly breeding location. The species winters out at sea, spending time around cold current upwellings, where there will be plenty of food. Most birds are found off the west coast of South Africa and off western South America, with some off the southern United States.
Its migration is entirely over the sea, unlike the other two species of phalarope, which will migrate across land. The route from its breeding grounds in Arctic Canada, Greenland and Iceland takes it off the coast of Labrador into the Bay of Fundy, with many birds heading in a south-easterly direction, across the equator to the Benguela Current region in the South Atlantic, off the South African coast. Birds from Siberia and Alaska migrate down the west Pacific to winter off western South America.
Birds arrive at their breeding grounds from late May. Once the eggs have been laid the males undertake the incubation, and if there is an excess of males, a female might mate a second time. The females sometimes vacate the breeding area as early as July, leaving the males to look after the young.
Males and juveniles start to head off around the beginning of August. They reach their wintering grounds by November and stay there until March and early April. Nothing is known about the origins of British records, as fewer than 100 birds have been ringed and there have been no recoveries.
The migration route of Canadian and Greenland birds takes them past Britain and Ireland, but normally well out to sea. Any deep depression heading west across the North Atlantic will tend to push them towards our shores. Birds from European breeding grounds, which number relatively few, may well make up most of the birds that get pushed into the North Sea with more northerly winds, resulting in the relatively few records along the east coast.
The first record for Britain was in 1757 and the number of records here averages about 200 birds a year, depending on the autumn gales. Although they will travel in flocks, British records are usually of single birds, or occasionally several together. Exceptionally large numbers have rarely been seen, although 1960 saw reports of huge numbers from around Britain and Ireland: there were counts of more than 1,000 off St Agnes, Scilly, on 15 September and at least 700 off Torquay on 5 October, while 500 or more were seen from Cape Clear, Co Cork, on 14 and 20 September. More recently, in early October 2001, up to 200 were seen off both Tresco and St Agnes.
Records inland are more unusual, although after the Great Storm of 1987 there were an incredible 80 birds on inland waters, including 15-20 at Grafham Water, Cambridgeshire, on 16 October. Spring birds are extremely rare, with the few records mainly from Scotland. In Wales Grey Phalarope is an irregular passage migrant, seen largely between September and November, with most in October. There are about 12 records a year, and most are seen at Strumble Head, Pembrokeshire. Scotland records between 10 and 50 birds a year in autumn, mainly from west coast headlands in suitably windy conditions. Irish records are mainly from the south-west and west coasts in autumn.
Some Grey Phalaropes breed in association with colonially breeding seabirds like Arctic Terns or Ross’s Gulls, and benefit from the early warning they get of predators in the area. The gulls and terns will usually successfully see off intruders like Arctic Foxes, which a phalarope couldn’t hope to frighten away.
Phalaropes have an interesting feeding behaviour. They take nvertebrate food from the surface and will spin, quite strongly in tight circles, to stir up food. Studies have shown that Grey Phalaropes tend to spin clockwise, especially if there are many if them in the same feeding area. Individual birds may spin both ways, but clockwise is almost always the favoured direction.
How to find
If you want to find your own, then the best way is to watch for the right weather conditions and then head for the coast. The species is mostly seen after westerly gales during September and October. A deep Atlantic depression bringing strong westerly or north-westerly winds towards the western side of Britain brings the most birds to our shores.
In north-westerly and northerly gales phalaropes might get pushed into the North Sea, in which case east coast sites will get the most birds. The strongest gales will often result in birds being blown inland and found non lakes and reservoirs.
Where to find
Grey Phalaropes can be seen along almost any coastline, but there are certain locations that record them regularly; here is our selection of them.
- Scilly: St Agnes (SV 882017) and Tresco (SV 882165)
- Cornwall: Pendeen (SW 378359) and St Ives Island (SW 520410)
- Dorset: Chesil Cove (SY 683734)
- Kent: Dungeness (TR 089169)
- Norfolk: Cley (TG 048452) and Sheringham (TG 160434)
- Lincolnshire: Gibraltar Point (TF 556580)
- East Yorkshire: Flamborough Head (TA 254706)
- North Yorkshire: Filey (TA 122815)
- Cleveland: Hartlepool Headland (NZ 531338)
- Northumberland: Whitburn (NZ 414627)
- Argyll: Machrahanish, Mull of Kintyre (NR 627208)
- Outer Hebrides: Rubha Ardvule, South Uist (NF 710300)
- Orkney: North Ronaldsay (HY 785560)
- Pembrokeshire: Strumble Head (SM 894411)
- Gwynedd: Bardsey (SH 111206)
- Co Clare: Bridges of Ross (Q 730500)
- Donegal: Tory Island (B 856467)