Norwegian Polar Institute » Arter » Grey phalarope

The grey phalarope is in fact mostly red in colour when in Svalbard. It is a delicately built wader, with a slender neck and small head. The grey phalarope has a circumpolar high arctic breeding distribution. It is found during summer in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Svalbard, Novaya Zemlya and northern Siberia. In Svalbard this species breeds over large parts of the archipelago, though in highest densities on Spitsbergen, Tusenøyane and Bjørnøya. Grey phalaropes have ”reversed” sex roles. It is the female that performs the courtship displays and participates most in territorial defence, while the male incubates the next and rears the young.

Contents

Description

The grey phalarope is in fact mostly red in colour when in Svalbard. It is a delicately built wader, with a slender neck and small head.

In breeding plumage the female has a uniform rusty-red neck and under-parts, a black back with broad yellow-brown edged feathers, and grey wings with a wide, white wing bar. The sides of the head are white, while the forehead, crown and chin are black. The bill is yellow with a black point and the legs are a pale blue-grey.

Adult birds are about 20 cm long and weigh 37–75 g. The female is slightly larger and more brightly coloured than the male. The male is paler and duller in colouring and has brown and black striations on the crown and chin.

In winter plumage, which they enter in August, both sexes have a pearl-grey back with white-edged feathers, a black crown and a black eye patch. The bill is usually completely black in winter. Juveniles have a dark brown back with yellow-brown edged feathers, a brownish breast and white belly. Their colouration changes into the first grey winter plumage in September-November.

The grey phalarope makes several types of sound, including a shrill ‘prep’.

  • Weight

    37–75 g

  • Size

    20–22 cm

  • Life expectancy

    5 yr

  • In other languages

    Polarsvømmesnipe (Norwegian)
    Thorshühnchen (German)
    Phalarope á bec large (French)
    Phalaropus fulicarius (Latin)

Distribution

The grey phalarope has a circumpolar high arctic breeding distribution. It is found during summer in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Svalbard, Novaya Zemlya and northern Siberia.

In Svalbard this species breeds over large parts of the archipelago, though in highest densities on Spitsbergen, Tusenøyane and Bjørnøya. It breeds in single pairs or in small colonies that can be in excess of 20 pairs.

They spend the winter largely at sea in tropical waters, usually in upwelling zones that are rich in plankton. Most of the European birds are thought to spend the winter off the coast of west Africa. A leg-banded individual from Svalbard was found on the west coast of France in December. Most of the birds arrive in Svalbard during early June and the southward migration begins as early as the middle of July.

The females are the first to migrate south. Males follow, and by the beginning of August most grey phalaropes have left the archipelago.

General ecology

Grey phalaropes prefer wet tundra areas with freshwater ponds and luxuriant, grassy vegetation. They often nest along the coast or on small islands. Upon their arrival in Svalbard there is often still snow on their nesting places, so the birds stay on the sea or in the tidal zone in the general area waiting for the snow to melt. Pairs often recur at the same breeding locality in subsequent years.

Outside the nesting period grey phalaropes are usually at sea (pelagic distribution), though they come ashore in periods with strong winds or bad weather. The adults find food on the damp tundra, along the shore, and while swimming.

In the nesting period they feed both in fresh water ponds and along the coast in salt water. Their diet consists of insects, small crustaceans and other invertebrates.

Life history and reproduction

Grey phalaropes have ‘reversed’ sex roles. It is the female that performs the courtship displays and participates most in territorial defence, while the male incubates the next and rears the young.

The female builds a concealed nest, usually in grass tussocks or in short vegetation, in a dry area. Egg laying begins as soon as there is access to dry nesting sites, normally in the middle of June. The four (sometimes, three) pear-shaped eggs are olive-brown with chestnut-brown speckles and blotches. The male incubates for 18–20 days before the eggs are hatched.

If there are ‘extra’ males available, a female will be polyandrous, i.e. the female mates with several males. After having laid the first clutch of eggs and left the male to incubate them, the female may mate with another male, build a new nest and lay a new clutch which is incubated by the other male. The female leaves the nesting area shortly after she finishes egg-laying.

After hatching the young wander with their father, nourishing themselves on small insects and plant material. They are fledged quickly, after only 16–18 days. They reach sexual maturity when they are one to two years of age.

The highest age recorded in Norway (including Svalbard) is five years.

Management status and monitoring

The breeding population has been estimated to be between 150 and 300 pairs. However, no reliable survey of the breeding population has been conducted, and the trend is unknown.