Readers of this blog will no doubt know how important Shetland is for breeding Red-necked Phalaropes and that we work hard to give them the best breeding conditions on our reserves. If you only visit in the summer months, it might be a surprise to know the amount of work which goes on to create the right conditions.  

We use a mixture of methods to create the best habitats. Hydrological management, grazing, hand-cutting and raking are all part of it, but we also need to use machines to manage pool systems. In August, thanks to a grant from the Scottish Marine Environment Enhancement Fund (SMEEF), we employed a local contractor to open up and re-profile pools on our phalarope sites in Fetlar. 

 Though classed as a wader species Red-necked Phalaropes are often described as “a wader that is actually a seabird” because they spend the majority of their life out at sea and, like many seabirds, only come to land for the breeding season. Arguably, Red-necked Phalaropes touch more bodies of saltwater than any ‘true’ seabird. A bird tagged from our managed sites in Fetlar was found to spend the winter in the South Pacific Ocean, migrating via the North Atlantic and the Labrador, Sargasso, and Caribbean Seas. When they return to Fetlar, many will feed on the North Sea before settling for their short breeding season. 

Four phalaropes, small waders with red necks, and gold stripes along their back feed on the sea
Red-necked Phalaropes feeding on the sea

Across the breeding season phalaropes need open pools for displaying to attract a mate, emergent vegetation for feeding and shelter, tufts of vegetation for nesting and short, wet areas for feeding chicks. The digger work we were able to do thanks to the SMEEF funding let us re-open up pools on four sites, which over time had started to silt up, with vegetation encroaching over the open areas. By installing varied edges and bays to these pools we are able to increase the amount of edge vegetation, which is important for phalaropes to feed along. Combined with grazing and hand cutting this work creates the mosaic of habitats phalaropes need to successfully breed.  

A heavily vegetated pool, with blue sky above

Before and after the opening up of a pool at the Mires of Houbie

A pool of water where the edge vegetation has been shaped into a jagged shape
Toothed edging to the pools increases the amount of edge habitat and provide micro-shelter from different wind directions.

This work also provided a great opportunity for Tom , our Species on the Edge Project Officer to join us on site whilst the contractors were working, to watch the work being carried out. He is working across Shetland with land managers to help provide more opportunities for these special birds to breed and the work in Fetlar can be used as an example of ways to help phalaropes. 

An orange digger loads material from pool clearance into a yellow dumper truck
Diggers at work - removing material from site

The work we’ve carried out can be seen at the Mires of Funzie, where the hide can be visited using a new, improved access track, or from the roadside at the Mires of Houbie, making sure to obey the Highway Code of course! 

This project is supported by the Scottish Government’s Nature Restoration Fund, which is facilitated by the Scottish Marine Environmental Enhancement Fund (SMEEF), and managed by NatureScot