19 March 2014

Fabulous phalaropes

With so few birds breeding in the UK and even fewer ringed, it's not surprising that we have only had a handful of Red-necked Phalarope recoveries and none of these have been abroad. Very little is known about the life of these tiny birds when they are away from their breeding grounds on Shetland and the Western Isles, but thanks to cutting-edge technology we are getting some extremely interesting insights.

Red-necked Phalarope - Edmund Fellowes

Tiny geolocators, which record the bird's position by a combination of light levels and time, were placed on 10 Red-necked Phalaropes as part of a collaboration between the Swiss Ornithological Institute, Shetland Ringing Group and the RSPB.

Red-necked Phalarope and its geolocator - Adam Rowlands

After successfully recapturing one of the tagged birds a year after ringing, its geolocator was removed and the information downloaded. This revealed an amazing 16,000 mile migration across the Atlantic into the Labrador Sea, then down the east coast of North America to Florida. This bird then crossed Mexico and remained east of the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean for the winter. On its return in April it followed a similar but more southerly route back. This is the first time a European bird has been recorded taking this migration route.

Migration route of the tagged Red-necked Phalarope
The data gained from this one bird has revealed a wealth of information, not only of the migration route it took but also the timing of its migration and how long it remained at stop-overs. The project will continue to answer other questions including whether all of our breeding Red-necked Phalaropes take this migration route or do some birds join the Scandanavian population, and whether this route changes depending on the weather and local storms. This technology is improving very quickly so it won't be long before we know a lot more.

Thanks to David Okill for letting us know.

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