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Yorkshire coast icons: Grey Phalarope

April 17, 2014

This article was originally published here by Yorkshire Coast Nature in March 2014

The second of Mark’s seasonal favourites from our hallowed home coast is a charismatic traveller with peculiar feeding habitats, enlightened gender roles and a penchant for surfing….

There are very few birds which actively seek out the most tempestuous corners of our coastline, and those that do (for example several seaducks and gull species) are necessarily hardy opportunists; a unique exception, however, is a comparatively tiny and dainty shorebird from the high Arctic, the Grey Phalarope. Indeed the best place to look for one of these beguiling waders is where wave action whips the water into a mini-maelstroms of surf and spray, bringing their microscopic quarry within reach.

But such specialised tastes require specialised feeding techniques, and phalaropes possess no fewer than three for this very purpose. Firstly, there’s a sewing machine-like stabbing motion, picking prey from the surface and often repeated with some speed; secondly, there’s straightforward up-ending, a familiar trait of, for example, dabbling ducks (but very unusual for a wader); and thirdly, there’s a unique technique which involves spinning in a repetitive motion and creating a miniature vortex; a distinct advantage not only when playing pin the tail on the donkey, but also for encouraging invertebrate prey towards the surface.

We’re usually blessed with a handful of sightings on the Yorkshire coast each year, often involving brief visits or fly-bys on their way from far northern breeding grounds to their winter quarters in sub-tropical waters off Africa. However, if feeding conditions en route are good, they often stick around for a few days, when their sometimes very forthcoming nature can inspire plenty of justified adoration. After autumnal storms, meanwhile, birds can occasionally be found on almost any inland water body, and I’ve been lucky enough to watch slightly lost-looking birds on urban reservoirs and even small boating lakes in London.

Peculiarly for waders (and indeed for many bird families), phalaropes reverse the commoner gender roles when breeding, and once the eggs are laid, the female deserts the territory and leaves the male to brood, hatch and tend the young to independence. Inkeeping with such a role reversal, the females compete for the attention of males, and are also the flashier of the two in summer plumage; by the time they reach us, however, bothe sexes are very much back in civvies, with a characteristic frosty grey and white winter plumage, smudged with black around the eyes, forecrown and wing feathers.

All words and Pictures copyright Mark James Pearson 2014



























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