The three phalarope species are anomalous sandpipers that breed at mid- to high latitudes in the northern hemisphere, and migrate to the southern hemisphere. They are unusual for their reversed sexual dimorphism and aberrant breeding systems (females are more colourful, and may leave two or more males to care for consecutive clutches), and in being highly aquatic.
Female phalaropes compete for nesting territories, court males, and aggressively defend their nest and mate. The chestnut red breeding plumage of the grey phalarope is more vivid on the female than the male. This is because it nests on the ground and the smaller male incubates the eggs, so needs to be well camouflaged.
Phalaropes feed mainly while swimming, and are famous for pirouetting as they do so. They have lobed toes that they use to swim, and they feed by spinning rapidly in a tight circle on the surface, stirring up small prey items that they feed on. The grey phalarope is even more unusual in that it is a wading bird of the remote open ocean. It lives virtually as a seabird for most of the year, coming ashore to breed. After breeding it migrates south over the Pacific Ocean to waters west of Chile, rarely reaching New Zealand. It sleeps floating lightly on the sea surface, and even feeds on parasitic lice that it picks from the backs of whales.
The breeding female grey phalarope has white cheek patches, a broad black crown extending back from the base of the bill, and a chestnut red neck and underparts. The wings are black and buff; the legs pale blue. Breeding male plumage is similar but duller and more variable with a mottled crown. Both sexes have lobed toes and a bulky, black-tipped yellow bill. Adult non-breeding birds have a black bill with yellow at the base, black patches behind the eyes and at the back of the crown, and a white head, neck and underparts. The upperparts are pale silvery-grey and the tail darker grey. Juveniles resemble non-breeding adults but also have a warm apricot-buff wash on the nape, shoulders and upperwings, and a darker crown.
Voice: a shrill metallic wit or pit flight call. The courtship song is described as a buzzing, far-carrying brrreep, and the alarm call is a chirruping zhit.
Similar species: the slightly smaller red-necked phalarope is slimmer, with a longer, narrower bill, and darker back and wings.
Distribution and habitat
The grey phalarope is a circumpolar annual breeder in June-July, mainly north of 60° N in high Arctic tundra of North America and Eurasia. It usually breeds in coastal areas at lower elevations than the red-necked phalarope. After breeding, grey phalarope migrate to pelagic waters off the west coasts of Africa and South America, and inhabits upwelling zones where plankton is most abundant. It rarely reaches New Zealand where there are ten accepted records.
The total global population is estimated to be 1 - 2 million birds.
New Zealand records
Lake Wainono (June 1883, June 1987), Lake Ellesmere (1925), Hastings (July 1934), Kaituna, Bay of Plenty (June 1977), Manukau Harbour (July 1992), Inch Clutha Lagoon (July 1993), Ninety Mile Beach (July 2003), off Tolaga Bay (May 2004), and Farewell Spit (March 2005). The most recent sighting was of an adult bird in partial breeding plumage near Napier in July 2012, on a small pond behind the beach.
The nest is a shallow cup or scrape on the ground in sedges or tussock, lined with grass, stones, feathers and lichen. After 3-4 eggs are laid in June, the female abandons the male to search for another mate, if enough male birds are available. The male incubates eggs for 17 - 26 days and feeds the chicks for the first few days. Males may then leave the chicks to feed themselves, or may stay with them until they can fly, 16-18 days after hatching. After females finish laying they migrate south. Once the chicks can fly, they also migrate.
Behaviour and ecology
On land, grey phalaropes feed rapidly like a sandpiper. Birds at sea have been seen following baleen whales and associating with beluga whales and walruses, and are sometimes seen pecking at the backs of whales. In the northern summer they associate with killer and beluga whales; in the southern summer, with sperm whales. A grey phalarope has been recorded standing on the back of a killer whale. The bird was shot and its stomach was found to contain lice of a rare species that lives in the skin of killer whales.
At sea, grey phalaropes feed on plankton and small fish found at the surface, and parasitic lice pecked from the skin of whales. During the breeding season, they forage in and around shallow water, eating plant matter and invertebrates, such as insects, molluscs and crustaceans.
Alerstam, T. 1990. Bird migration. Cambridge University Press.
Brown, B.; Latham, P.C.M. 1978. Grey phalarope in the Bay of Plenty. Notornis 25: 198-202.
Heather, B.D.; Robertson, H.A. 1996 (rev 2000). The field guide to the birds of New Zealand. Auckland, Viking.
Higgins, P.J.; Davies, S.J.J.F (eds). 1996. Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic birds. Vol. 3. Snipe to pigeons. Oxford University Press, Melbourne.
Maloney, R.; Watola, G. 1989. A second grey phalarope at Lake Wainono. Notornis 36: 88.
Medway, D.G. 2010. Charadriiformes (waders). Pp 191-223. In: Checklist Committee (OSNZ) 2010. Checklist of the birds of New Zealand, Norfolk and Macquarie Islands, and the Ross Dependency, Antarctica (4th edn). Ornithological Society of New Zealand & Te Papa Press, Wellington.
Miskelly, C.M.; Crossland, A.C.; Sagar, P.M.; Saville, I.; Tennyson, A.J.D.; Bell, E.A. 2017. Vagrant and extra-limital records accepted by the Birds New Zealand Records Appraisal Committee 2015-2016. Notornis 64: 57-67.
Szabo, M.J. 2013 [updated 2017]. Grey phalarope. In Miskelly, C.M. (ed.) New Zealand Birds Online.. www.nzbirdsonline.org.nz
- Breeding season
- Egg laying dates