Arctic Species: Red Phalarope

A bit a strange member of the wader group is the Red Phalarope, or Grey Phalarope if you’re not from the US but from the UK. I’m not from any of these countries, so I go for the most apt name and in summertime, when the birds are on Spitsbergen, they are bright red coloured, so that name makes most sense.

Female Red Phalarope in front of blue ice

But there is more to tell about these interesting birds. As with all phalaropes, they have reversed their breeding roles. In almost all birds, both parents share incubation and chick rearing, or it’s the female who takes care of those jobs. In this case, it often happens that the female leaves the male immediately after laying the eggs. Now the male has to take care of both incubation and rearing the chicks. The female, meanwhile, will go and look for another male and repeat this strategy. This way, she can produce several clutches a year and he might only have to help the last male (which has the shortest time to raise the chicks).

Male (left) and female (right) Red Phalarope

This also means that, in contrast to most bird families, the female has the brighter plumage. Usually, there is either no difference between male and female, or it’s the male with the brighter plumage, as he has to attract the female. In this case, the female has to attract the male, which means she has the more attractive plumage. Not that the male is that dull, by the way, but there is a clear difference.

A male Red Phalarope on the tundra

Speaking of their plumage: I remember when I was a kid to browse through bird books and stopping at the page of the phalaropes. What an attractive birds, with their bright orange plumage. I remember thinking they must stand out really well in nature. I could not be more wrong. As you can see in the image above, they are actually well camouflaged against the equally orange-brown moss and can be very hard to spot sometimes.

A Red Phalarope on his nest, can you find it?

The same goes for breeding individuals. I’ve only ones managed to find a bird at its nest and even then, it was extremely difficult to see.

Arjen Drost

Arjen is a Polar ecologist, nature photographer and full time expedition guide on expedition cruise ships in both Polar regions. With his pictures and stories he likes to show the beauty of these very fragile and threatened places.

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