Friday, 25 July 2014

Red-necked phalaropes

An adult male Red-necked Phalarope in breeding plumage - and out of water
For the past few years I have been taking part in a study of arctic-breeding waders in northern Norway. This has been organised by my brother Robert Rae and the local ornithologist Karl-Birger Strann. And there have been numerous other helpers as it is a long-term study.

One of the wader species which breed in the area is the Red-Necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus, and when I photographed a bird walking over dry land I could not remember the last time I had seen this behaviour. For Red-necked Phalaropes spend most of their lives on water, whether on oceans during the non-breeding period, or while spinning around catching mosquitoes in tundra bog pools where they breed.

Sedge-lined pools in the arctic tundra - Red-necked Phalarope breeding habitat
We have caught numerous phalaropes over the years, to ring as part of the long-term study on the population and their movements. They are a reverse sexual dimorphic species, where the female is the larger brighter bird which does most of the sexual displaying, and the males are less boldly marked as they do all the incubation and care of the chicks. Although there are some well-marked males and some dull females, so telling their sex in the field can be trickier than suggested in some literature.

An adult male Red-necked Phalarope - a well marked bird
When holding phalaropes in the hand after catching them, one is given a rare chance to see their lobed toes. Their scientific name Phalaropus means coot foot-like and the lobatus emphasizes the reference to their lobed toes. A feature seldom visible when seen in the field.

The lobed toes of a Red-necked Phalarope
The bird I photographed on land was walking a few metres back to its nest after feeding on a nearby pool. Most Red-necked Phalarope nests are set in wet sites, amongst sedges which fringe the pools where they forage, often in extensive beds of sedge on larger pool systems. The birds build a tiny platform of dry sedge stems, just enough to keep the eggs dry above the waterline.

A typical 'wet' nest site - a platform built above water amongst sedges
Some birds select a dry nest site on the edge of a bank next to a pool, or as in this case on top of a dry hummock amongst scattered pools. The nest was right on top of the hummock, tucked beneath a clump of cotton grass and below a dwarf birch.

A dry phalarope nest site on top of a hummock

A closer view of the same dry nest site
As with most waders, Red-necked Phalaropes usually lay four eggs in a clutch, and again like most wader eggs, they are very well coloured and marked for camouflage, to conceal them while the incubating bird is off feeding.

The eggs are well camouflaged to avoid detection by visually-clued predators such as ravens
When the adult bird is on the nest, the whole is even more hidden as the male's dull plumage colouring blends softly with the surrounding vegetation.

The adult bird is also well concealed when sitting on the nest
Phalaropes might be unusual waders in their habit of being mostly swimmers that rarely walk, but the opposite also occurs. I have seen several species of wader swim, usually just to cross a narrow creek or section of deep water, such as Dunlin or Purple Sandpiper in their winter coastal habitats or Spotted Redshank, another species of wader which breeds in the Norwegian tundra next to the phalaropes.

A non-lobed-toe wader swimming - Spotted redshank crossing a deep section of a feeding pool

1 comment:

  1. Some fantastic up-close photos Stuart - and of birds I've never even seen.