Balranald reports rare breeding pair

A bird which is extremely rare in Scotland, and the rest of the UK, has bred at RSPB Scotland’s Balranald nature reserve in North Uist for the first time in 31 years.

Red-necked phalaropes are delicate wading birds that are well-known for their reversed sexual roles in which the small, drab male is solely responsible for incubating eggs and caring for the chicks.

Phalaropes migrate to the Western and Northern Isles of Scotland during the summer. However, they disappeared completely from the Uists as a breeding bird in the mid-1980s. Now a survey, carried out this year, has found a breeding pair at Balranald.

Jamie Boyle, RSPB Scotland’s Balranald site manager, said: “Balranald is already a fantastic place for wildlife with its corncrakes, bees and waders, but to have the phalaropes back this year made it extra special and I hope to see them return next year.”

Red-necked phalaropes are doing well elsewhere in Scotland too, with record numbers counted in two locations.

Shetland is the UK stronghold for breeding phalaropes, particularly the island of Fetlar where RSPB Scotland manages wetlands for these birds.

The number of breeding males on the reserve has increased from only six in 2008 to 36 in 2015; equalling the highest number that has ever been recorded on the reserve. Shetland as a whole was home to a total of 60 breeding phalarope males this year – 20 more than the previous record of 40 in 1996.

Malcie Smith, RSPB Scotland species and habitats Officer for Shetland, said: “It was so exciting to see that many phalaropes about for their very short summer season.

‘‘It’s very satisfying that our work here is paying off and that birds are now breeding in record numbers.”

A traditional breeding area in Argyll also had its best year on record with six males present; at least three broods were also observed in August. The site, which is the most southerly for breeding red-necked phalaropes in the UK, was re-occupied in 2009 but was only used by two males annually until 2014.

Meanwhile, one of the colour-ringed red-necked phalaropes that fledged from Fetlar this summer has been reported in southern France. It is only the second ever ringing return of a phalarope from Shetland.

Until 2013, the wintering location of Shetland’s phalaropes was a mystery and it was assumed they went to the Arabian Sea like those that breed in Scandinavia.

In 2012, tiny geolocators were attached to phalaropes in Shetland by RSPB Scotland, working in collaboration with the Swiss Ornithological Institute and the Shetland Ringing Group.

One was recovered the following year and the data was remarkable: the bird had migrated to the Pacific Ocean and spent the winter in the waters between the Galapagos Islands, mainland Ecuador and Peru. This epic return journey of 16,000 miles had never before been recorded for a European breeding bird.

Ten more tags were deployed by RSPB Scotland in 2015 to consolidate these findings.

The ringing recoveries add to the wildlife charity’s ever-growing understanding of red-necked phalaropes, which will help in the work to increase populations of this species further.