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Phalaropus lobatus - Red-necked Phalarope

Red-necked Phalarope image

Geographic range:

The Red-necked Phalarope breeds worldwide in low arctic latitudes and winters chiefly at sea in South Hemisphere.

Key features:

Very small pelagic shorebird that spins in shallow waters to raise prey items.

Similar species:

Phalaropus fulicaria -- Red phalarope


pelagic zone

Primary common name:

Red-necked Phalarope

Synonymous name(s):

Northern Phalarope

General grouping:

Seabirds and shorebirds

ITIS code:


Geographic Range

Range Description:

The Red-Necked Phalarope has the most widely distributed breeding range of all the phalaropes, breeding circumpolarly in the low Arctic and Subarctic. In North America it breeds across the north from Alaska, across northern Canada to Labrador and the coast of Newfoundland. It also breeds in Greenland, Spitsbergen, Iceland, Faeroes, Scotland, Scandinavia, Finland, Estonia, and Russia. It winters at sea in mostly tropical waters off the west coast of South America as far south as Chile and is also common around the Galapagos Islands. They are common inland in the west. Small numbers consistently winter near Imperial Beach, California, on salt evaporation ponds in San Diego Bay, and also the Salton Sea. During their fall migration large numbers may be seen at Mono Lake, California. They also winter in the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the East Indies, the Philippines, and New Guinea.


pelagic zone


Relative abundance:

The Red-necked Phalarope is common during spring and fall in the MBNMS area as it migrates between the Arctic and South America. There are no estimates of their worldwide population, but Canada estimates their population from 2 to 3 million.

Species Description

General description:

The Red-necked Phalarope (formerly called the Northern Phalarope) is one of the world's smallest seabirds, possessing salt glands, and migrating overland or along coasts or being seen away from the coast, thus qualifying them to also be called a shorebird. It is also the daintiest of the 3 phalarope species. It has the shortest bill (one inch), which is all black and tapers to a sharp point. Its legs and feet are also black with lobed toes. In breeding plumage the female is more brightly colored and larger than the male. Her breast and back are dark gray, with the back striped in brown. Her head and cheeks are dark gray and her neck is rufous with a white throat patch and a small white spot over the eye. The male is similar but duller and the white spot over the eye is larger, more like an eye-line. In non-breeding plumage they are blue-gray above, with darker gray streaking, and white below, with a white head and face and a dark ear patch extending back from the eye. The juvenile is buff and black streaked, resembling the winter adult with bright buff stripes. In flight they show a white stripe down the middle of the wing and a dark center stripe down the tail, with lighter edges. Its flight is swift and swallow-like with rapid wing beats, quick movements, and turns. (To distinguish Red-necked Phalaropes from Red Phalaropes, look for the darker winter plumage and heavily striped back, blacker crown and more contrasting wing stripe of the Red-necked Phalarope and its thin, straight needlelike bill.) In all seasons, when swimming, they sit on, not in, the water due to the air trapped in their feathers for warmth which give them buoyancy. Submerging is difficult and they do not dive. Their call is a high, sharp, kit often given in a series.

Distinctive features:

Very small pelagic shorebird that spins in shallow waters to raise prey items. Needlelike black bill. In breeding plumage rufous neck with dark gray head, cheeks, and body, with rufous striping.


Length: 19-20 cm (7.5-8 in) Wingspan: 36-38 cm (14-15 in) Weight: 34 g (1.2 oz)

Natural History

General natural history:

Like other phalaropes, Red-necked Phalaropes are pelagic shorebirds, spending most of their lives at sea. Unable to dive well, these birds have developed a unique feeding method, when sitting on shallow water, of swimming in tight circles at many revolutions per minute, which brings plankton to the surface of the water where they can grab it with their bills. They are excellent swimmers and propel themselves by paddling. Their lobed toes give them a powerful stroke. Red-necked Phalaropes spend up to nine months at a time at sea. They nest in the low Arctic, on tundra ponds with marshy shores and bogs. They usually breed farther inland and at higher elevations than do Red Phalaropes, which prefer coastal breeding areas. During migration, large numbers gather at hyper-saline lakes before heading south. Many migrate over the open ocean, often within sight of land. Some migrate over land and can be seen on reservoirs, lakes, and coastal marshes. At sea, they gather at upwellings and convergence zones where food is brought to the surface. They are sometimes blown onshore by storms and during these times can be found anywhere, especially at sewage ponds They are a polyandrous species in which sex roles are reversed; breeding females are distinguishable by brighter plumage than males and by slightly larger body size. After initiating courtship with males and laying 3 to 4 eggs the female deserts the nest. The male, who is the only one with brood patches, is left to incubate the eggs for 18 to 20 days and to tend the chicks for another 18 to 22 days, until the chicks can fly. Females gather in “loafing” flocks and will seldom produce a second brood. They are largely nonterritorial, although in breeding season, females fight ferociously over males, striking at competing females with their wings and beaks. Outside of the breeding season, Red-necked Phalaropes are highly social and are often found in flocks.


Pomarine Jaeger (Stercorarius pomarinus) and Sharp-shinned Hawk ( Accipiter striatus) are aerial predators of the Red-necked Phalarope. Arctic ( Alopex lagopus) and red foxes (Vulpes vulpes), short-tailed weasel (Mustela erminea), Parasitic Jaegers (Stercorarius parasiticus), Glaucous Gulls (Larus hyperboreus), and arctic ground squirrels (Citellus parryi) and perhaps Sandhill Cranes (Grus Canadensis) are probable egg predators.


Plankton in winter. On breeding grounds, adult and larval flies and fly eggs (Diptera [Chironomidae and Tipulidae] and other unidentified dipterans), beetles (Coleoptera [Chrysomelidae]), and unidentified spiders. In pelagic environments, diet consists primarily of copepods (Calanus spp.); also euphausiids (Euphausia pacifica, Euphausia spp., Meganyctiphanes norvegica), other crustaceans, insects (adult Hymenoptera, Hemiptera, Homoptera, Thysanoptera, Coleoptera, and adult and pupal Diptera) and marine invertebrates (mollusks [Modiolus modiolus], polychaetes, and gastropods), fish eggs, and seeds. At saline lakes during fall migration, diet overwhelmingly consists of alkali flies (Diptera: Ephydra hians of all life stages, but with a marked preference for larvae. Also, adults and larvae of other dipterans and very rarely (in descending order of occurrence) seeds of Scirpus spp., beetles (Coleoptera: Hygrotus masculinus), and brine shrimp (Anostraca: Artemia salina).

Feeding behavior


Feeding behavior notes:

The Red-necked Phalarope is a visual forager, pecking prey items from water. They rarely submerge head and neck. They, like all phalaropes, are known for their behavior of spinning like a top on the surface of the water. It is believed that this creates an upwelling bringing up prey from the bottom in shallow water. Prey is picked up at the tip of the bill, and then the mandibles are spread, carrying the item to the back of the mouth. They will also snap at flying insects.

March - May


Many migrate over the open ocean, often within sight of land. Some migrate over land and can be seen on reservoirs, lakes, and coastal marshes. At sea, they gather at upwellings and convergence zones where food is brought to the surface. They are sometimes blown onshore by storms and during these times can be found anywhere, especially at sewage ponds.

May - June


Females arrive on the breeding grounds before males. They establish territories and display to attract mates. Both sexes start scrapes on mounds or tussocks near the water, and the female picks one. The male adds a lining of grass, sedge, lichen, and leaves to the scrape which is usually concealed in sedge, ferns, grass, or shrubs. After laying four eggs, the female leaves. The male then incubates the eggs for 17 to 21 days and provides all parental care once they hatch. The female often tries to attract another mate.. The young leave the nest within a day of hatching and find their own food. The male leaves the young after about two weeks. The young start to fly at 16 to 17 days, and can fly well by 20 to 22 days.

June - September


These migrants travel long distances from their Arctic breeding grounds to winter in tropical seas around the globe. They migrate over land and over the ocean, and gather in the fall at saline lakes in the North American west before heading to their wintering grounds.

October - March


Red-necked Phalaropes spend the winter months at sea off the west coast of South America, where they feed on plankton.

Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary:

The Canadian Wildlife Service estimates the global population of Red-necked Phalaropes at 4,000,000 birds, with 2,500,000 in North America. The remainder breed throughout the far Northern Hemisphere. While the population is difficult to monitor, there has been some evidence of declines in some areas, and Red-necked Phalaropes have disappeared from some traditional staging areas in recent years. Very little is known about the status of their wintering areas or what effect El Niño events have on the population. More study is necessary to understand the status of the population and its conservation needs. Red-necked phalaropes usually lead solitary lives on their winter breeding grounds, but in the summer they collect in large flocks. This makes them especially vulnerable to oil spills. Because they feed on the surface of the water, they’re also exposed to pollutants discarded into the oceans.
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