This week has seen the start to our favourite part of the year – red-necked phalarope monitoring time! 

Once a week for the next six weeks we’ll be visiting phalarope breeding sites in Shetland to record the number of birds and the behaviour they are displaying. 

Phalarope surveys are unlike any other surveys we do. As the birds often move around the sites we make notes on individuals to ensure we don’t double count them. We record behaviour as this gives us an idea if there are nests or chicks around. We also have to be extremely careful about where we are putting our feet – phalarope eggs and chicks are tiny so extreme care is taken when moving through nesting habitat.  When this is all put together, phalarope surveys can be quite mentally tiring but the experience is an absolute joy and the whole team feels very lucky to work so closely with such fantastic little birds. 

Four phalaropes on the sea

We saw the whole range of behaviour this week – males that had recently returned and were feeding up, females chasing each other away, mating between paired birds and males ‘alone and frantic’ which is a sign they have a nest nearby, as they frantically feed son they can get back to the nest as soon as possible. Although we have some males very likely on nests, some birds are still arriving in Shetland which is why we do multiple visits to build up a comprehensive idea of numbers across the season. 

Mating red-necked phalaropes
Mating red-necked phalaropes
Photo taken whilst carrying out surveys under license

Excitingly on Wednesday the team saw two birds that were colour ringed as chicks last year. Both are now adult males and were getting flirty with females. One of the males was found about 100m from where he’d hatched. The other male, although on the same island where he had been born, was found on a different site. By recording re-sightings of our colour ringed chicks it will help us get a better understanding of survival rates and also see if/how the birds disperse from the sites where they hatch. This all then feeds back into our planning when we think about any practical management on the sites. 

a brood of four phalarope chicks in the nest     a chick with colour rings
Left - a brood of four phalarope chicks in the nest
Right - a chick with colour rings - this was re-sighted as an adult this week
Chick handled under licence for ringing purposes- photo taken of rings to speed up the process of not lingering with the birds too long. 

Let’s keep our fingers crossed for another successful phalarope season! 

*If you are heading the Fetlar to see red-necked phalaropes, as well as RSPB Mires of Funzie, there are viewpoints set up to safely view birds at Aith beach and Mires of Houbie. Please do not walk through breeding habitat and read our previous blog post on why disturbance can be an issue.* 

Sumburgh Head – The puffins have been seen bringing food back to the burrows which indicates eggs have hatched. Guillemots, kittiwakes, fulmars, shags and razorbills can all be seen on the cliffs. And razorbill chicks are doing well as well as monitored shag nests too.

Loch of Spiggie – The new rafts continue to be used by Arctic Terns, giving visitors close views of food passes. Around the edges of the loch curlew, redshank, snipe, oystercatcher and ringed plover are breeding. 

Mousa – Some of the eider ducks now have ducklings and we have the first chicks in our shag monitoring plots. Starling fledglings keep appearing from the stone walls. Red-throated divers are nesting and snipe, dunlin, redshank and oystercatchers are all nesting. Some of the storm petrels will now have eggs too. 

Until next time