Odd birds have quite a neck

RED-NECKED phalarope sounds like a piece of abuse you might hurl at an intruder.

In fact it’s a small, delicate and rare wading bird with some rather eccentric habits.

I mentioned them in this column last week in the context of gender roles in bird species. One reader emailed: “The phalarope sounds like an interesting duck. Is it only be seen in Mayo, or is it gone from Ireland?”

There are several species of phalarope. The grey phalarope is not as rare as the red-necked phalarope and Wilson’s phalarope is a North American species that turns up in Ireland fairly regularly.

Rather confusingly, they all have red necks in the breeding season, more pronounced in the females, which dominate the males in all species. None of them, however, are ducks.

They are small waders, around 20 centimetres long.

But phalaropes are unusual among waders because they are oceanic rather than coastal species.

They spend their winters floating about on tropical oceans and fly north to the Arctic to breed in spring. In the early 20th century, a colony of red-necked phalaropes was found breeding on the Mullet Peninsula in Co Mayo. It was the most southerly breeding colony in the world and was closely monitored by ornithologists. Unfortunately the colony declined and there has been no consistent breeding since the 1970s.

Pairs or individuals occasionally turn up, usually in coastal marshes along the west or south coast.

They are rather beautiful birds and, apart from the total dominance of the females, they are interesting because of some of their feeding habits.

They eat small aquatic crustaceans and other invertebrates. They have lobed toes, and spin round like a toy top in the water to create a whirlpool to draw their prey up to the surface. They are well worth a Google.

* A couple of weeks ago in this column I introduced you to the family saga of Mrs Fox. She is a small vixen who chose a human family to be her patrons and protectors. Thanks to them I can update you on the story. “Mrs Fox is eating voraciously these days. Must learn to take better photos with my newly acquired camera. Still very busy attending her family but keeping them out of sight. They must be about 4/5 weeks old at present.”

Well, I thought the pictures were pretty good for a beginner so we’re publishing a portrait of Mrs Fox in this week’s column.

Unfortunately I have been guilty of misleading you in the recent past. I got my egrets muddled up but another reader, obviously a more reliable bird expert than I am, sorted things out.

There are three egret species that have occurred in Ireland.

The little egret is the commonest. It is medium sized (60cm) with a dark beak and legs but yellow feet and first bred in Ireland in 1997. The cattle egret is smaller (50cm) and was very rare until 2007/2008 when 80-100 birds suddenly appeared, mostly in Co Cork.

However they have since disappeared without any confirmed record of successful breeding. The third species is the great white egret which is the size of our common grey heron (94cm). It is a rare but annual visitor but again there are no breeding records.

* dick.warner@examiner.ie

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