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HomeSpits­ber­gen infor­ma­ti­onWild­life → Grey phalar­o­pe

Grey phalarope (Phalaropus fulicarius)

A Grey phalar­o­pe rota­ting in flat water, may be a stran­ge sight. But this fun­ny beha­vi­or is fora­ging: By tur­ning fast in the water prey is whir­led up from the water bot­tom. Also the rather unusu­al gen­der roles make the Grey phalar­o­pe inte­res­ting.

Grey phalarope

Grey phalar­o­pe. Male in sum­mer plu­mage.

Descrip­ti­on: The bree­ding plu­mage of the Grey phalar­o­pe is rus­ty red, apart from the more camou­fla­ged upper sides of the wings and head and a white spot around the eyes. It is a small bird (length 20 cm, weight 40-75 g). The­re are some unusu­al dif­fe­ren­ces bet­ween the sexes: The fema­le is not only slight­ly lar­ger, but also has the more con­trast-rich plu­mage, unli­ke the nor­mal situa­ti­on with most birds. This has to do with its unusu­al bree­ding beha­viour (see below).

Grey phalarope

Pair of Grey phalar­o­pes. Male in front.

Dis­tri­bu­ti­on / Migra­ti­ons: The Grey phalar­o­pe occurs in the high Arc­tic ever­y­whe­re around the North Pole. In Sval­bard, it breeds ever­y­whe­re near the coast, but is most abundant on the west coast (Isfjord, Bellsund) of Spits­ber­gen, in Tus­enøya­ne and on Bjørnøya. In win­ter, Grey phalar­o­pes like it warm and migra­te as far as the Tro­pics. Tho­se com­ing from Sval­bard, pro­bab­ly win­ter near the coast of West Afri­ca. They come back to the bree­ding are­as in ear­ly or mid June and stay until late July or ear­ly August. The fema­les lea­ve first, and the males stay until bree­ding is com­ple­ted.

Grey phalarope

Pair of Grey phalar­o­pes. Fema­le in front.

Bio­lo­gy: Grey phalar­o­pes breed in soli­ta­ry pairs or loo­se colo­nies on flat, moist tun­dra with rich vege­ta­ti­on, often near small ponds. Often, they return to the same nest for several years. They find their food, most­ly insects and small crustace­ans, in the tun­dra in small ponds, or on the coast. Some­ti­mes they are seen sit­ting on shal­low water, rota­ting quick­ly to whirl up prey.
Com­pa­red to many other birds, Grey phalar­o­pes have swop­ped roles for bree­ding. Lay­ing the four eggs in mid June is still the female’s busi­ness, but then the male takes over for incu­ba­ting (18-20 days) and taking care of the off­spring (16-18 days). This enab­les the fema­le to breed again with a dif­fe­rent male. Once the second set of eggs is laid, the fema­le will move south.

Grey phalarope

Grey phalar­o­pes loo­king for food in shal­low water next to the shore.

Mis­cel­la­ne­ous: The win­te­ring plu­mage is grey (hence the name) and rather unsight­ly, hence the com­mon desi­re of many bird­wat­chers, who have seen this bird in Euro­pe during the win­ter, to see it in the Arc­tic in sum­mer plu­mage. The bree­ding beha­viour also makes this bird qui­te inte­res­ting. With some luck and in the right place, you may see several indi­vi­du­als tog­e­ther on the beach whe­re they can actual­ly be qui­te approach­a­ble, if you are care­ful.


By the way:

New book

my new book is in print and it can now be orde­red 🙂 it is a pho­to book with the tit­le “Nor­we­gens ark­ti­scher Nor­den (3): Die Bären­in­sel und Jan May­en”, with Ger­man text Click here for fur­ther details!


This and other publishing products of the Spitsbergen publishing house in the Spitsbergen-Shop.

last modification: 2019-03-15 · copyright: Rolf Stange