Phalarope breaks all conventions

ACCORDING to ornithologist Eric Dempsey, three red-necked phalaropes visited a site in the midlands this summer.

Phalarope is not a name on the tip of everyone’s tongue, but this bird deserves to be better known. People who break the rules and flout social conventions are usually more interesting than their staid law-abiding equivalents and it’s the same with wild creatures.

The cuckoo is a case in point. So too is the phalarope, a small wader who pays little heed to the normal decencies of family life.

‘Phalarope’ is derived from the Greek, meaning ‘coot foot’ – the feet are partially webbed and lobed like the paddles of a coot. Waders don’t swim, their feet are not webbed, but phalaropes are an exception to the rule. The plumage, like that of ducks, traps air so that the birds float high in the water. Among the smallest swimming birds in the world, they ‘spin’ in circles to bring creepy-crawlies to the surface. The winter is spent feeding on plankton (like the little storm petrel, see Damien Enright, below) at sea, after a journey of thousands of kilometres to places where upwellings bring food to the surface.

Not enough phalaropes have been ringed in this part of the world to be sure of their winter destinations, but Icelandic and Scottish ones seem to spend the winter in the Arabian Sea. Being light for buoyancy means that phalaropes are easily blown off course during migration – in Canada, they are known as ‘gale birds’. It may also be the reason why all three of the world’s phalarope species turn up here regularly as vagrants. Waders normally mate on land, but phalaropes do so on the water. However, their most conspicuous break with bird social conventions occurs once the eggs have been laid. Female animals, especially birds, carry out most of the breeding chores but, in phalaropes, the male does just about everything.

The female arrives first at the nesting area and begins advertising for a mate. She is about 20% larger than her potential mates. Both sexes have colourful red white and black plumage, but females are more glamorous. Once paired, the birds make nesting scrapes. However, it’s she who decides which one will be used. Having laid four eggs, she absconds leaving all the donkey-work to him. He does the incubating, brooding and protection of the babies, leading them to water like a mother duck. His duller plumage helps camouflage him at this vulnerable time. Nor does the wayward wife show much gratitude for his devotion to their family; she’s busy making advances to neighbouring males. Phalaropes breed in loose colonies so there is usually plenty of temptation around. As little as a week after laying her first clutch she may deposit a second one in her new lover’s nest, in due course deserting him also. If the first husband loses the eggs to flooding or a predator, she can return and lay a replacement clutch for him. Females leave the nesting area before their mates and offspring.

Ireland once boasted the most southerly breeding colony of red-necked phalaropes in the world. The location, discovered in 1902, was at Annagh Marsh on the Mullet Peninsula. It held between 40 and 50 breeding pairs up to the 1920s. The site was acquired by the Irish Society for the Protection of Birds, now known as BirdWatch Ireland. A local man, Danny Gilboy, became its permanent warden and the location was a closely-guarded secret for decades. Egg collectors and over-enthusiastic bird-watchers were kept at bay.

Phalarope numbers fell, probably because of climate change, and only a handful of nests were recorded each year during the 1950s and 60s. Birds failed to breed during most summers from 1972 onwards. Eric Dempsey remembers the odd nest during the 1980s, but the species, effectively, no longer breeds here. The nearest colony is in Shetland where there are about 40 pairs.

The trio which turned up this summer consisted of a two males and a female, an excellent combination; she could lay in two nests as is the phalarope way. BirdWatch Ireland are keeping tight-lipped about the situation, but there is just a glimmer of hope that breeding will be re-established. Our rising land and sea temperatures won’t help. Still, you never know.

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