A phalarope success story

After we carry out practical work on the reserves there’s a period of time where we have to wait to see if species respond in the way we hope. There’s a lot of skills and experience within the organisation that backs up why we manage habitats the way we do, but there’s still a moment of relief when wildlife uses the new or improved habitats. Sometime things turn out even better than expected, as was the case this year. 

Back in March we got a digger in to one of our sites we manage for red-necked phalaropes to reprofile ponds and help future proof the site. Over time open pools can become full of vegetation so we use the diggers to remove some of the growth to reinstate areas of open water. We also use the machines to reprofile edges so there is a variety of sloped edges and steeper drop offs, creating areas for emergent vegetation to grow and islands within the pools. Different depths within the pool also helps to ensure that there is still water present, even in dry years. Combined with the use of water control pipes and some pilings dams, all of these factors create the mosaic of habitats that red-necked phalaropes need for displaying, nesting, and feeding. The work went well and over the season the whole team were thrilled with how good the site looked – completely transformed from last year when it dried out. 

The warden stuck in the mud whilst relaying pipes. A digger is in the background
Warden Beth stuck in the mud whilst work was being carried out
A series of pools in a mire habitata
The newly reprofiled mire with new islands

Over the last two summers, when monitoring phalaropes, we have colour ringed any chicks we have come across. The combination of colour rings helps us to identify individual birds if they are seen again. Over time this will enable us to build up a picture of how chicks use our sites and see if they return. We weren’t sure what to expect this year and were over the moon to find three of last year's chicks return to Shetland this year as adult birds. 

A phlarope chick in the hand with coloured rings on it's legs

A colour ringed phalarope chick.

One of the returning birds turned out to be a male. We can’t tell the differences between the sexes at the chick stage so we have to wait until they’re re-sighted before we know the sex. This male bird had returned to the site where he’s hatched in 2021, and we spotted him within a few hundred meters of the location of his nest. This site also happened to be the one where the digger work was carried out in early spring. 

As survey season continued the male was seen again, showing courtship behaviour with a female, and then later, with a nest, on an island that had been created during the digger work! We couldn’t have hoped for a better result. But that’s not the end of it.

As we finished the final survey of the season we did one last check on the phalarope nest and made the delightful discovery that one of the eggs had hatched and a tiny beak had broken through the shell of a second. Our little chick from last year was now a parent. Watching from a distance the male was observed removing empty shell from the nest. Rather than just drop it a distance from the nest he took it to the edge of a pool, and dunked it in the water until it sank. We’re not sure if anyone has ever seen this behaviour before! By the end of the day all four eggs had hatched and we were able to colour ring the chicks – that's two generations we can now identify.  

A small woven nest contains a newly hatched phalarope chick, an egg with a beak breaking through and two other eggs

It was a perfect way to round off our 2022 phalarope season - seeing birds respond to the work we'd done and watch one of last years chicks have it's first successful breeding season. We have everything crossed our phalaropes migrate successfully and we see some of them next year. We're already counting down the days until they return.