Wildlife Iceland

Status of the Icelandic Red Phalarope population

From the Magazine Bliki, published by The Icelandic Institute of Natural History, in coutesy of The Icelandic Institute of Natural History and Mr. Yann Kolbeinsson.

The Red Phalarope is one of the rarest breeding birds in Iceland and has decreased in number or even disappeared from some breeding sites, especially in south-west Iceland. Studies were carried out into the number and distribution of Red Phalaropes in the summers of 2004-2005 and 2010 and the results are presented here and compared with censuses conducted in previous years. In the most recent survey more than 180 Red Phalaropes were found, far more than in 1987 and 1994 but fewer than in 2005. The vast majority were found in south-east Iceland.

Phalaropes are small and lively waders which have long fascinated and delighted birdwatchers. Two species of phalarope breed in Iceland, Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus and Red Phalarope Phalaropus fulicarius, also known as Grey Phalarope. Both have a circumpolar distribution. A third species, Wilson’s Phalarope Phalaropus tricolor, breeds on the plains of North America and has been recorded as a vagrant in Iceland on five occasions (Gunnlaugur Þráinsson & Gunnlaugur Pétursson 2000, Yann Kolbeinsson, own observations).

Most birdwatchers in Iceland are familiar with the Red-necked Phalarope as it is widely distributed and is a locally common breeder in wetlands from sea level up to moorland areas. The Red Phalarope, however, is a rare breeder and has been ever since it was first recorded breeding in Iceland in 1820 (Faber 1822). Its rarity is one of the reasons that the Red Phalarope has been a particularly sought after species among Icelandic and visiting birdwatchers. Iceland lies at the southern edge of the breeding range of the Red Phalarope and there are fewer places where access to them is as straightforward as it is here. The Red Phalarope is on the Red List of Threatened Species as the breeding population is small and there are few breeding sites (The Icelandic Institute of Natural History 2000).

The Red Phalarope is a High Arctic species whose main breeding grounds are on the tundra of Siberia, Alaska and Canada. Smaller and more isolated populations are found in Greenland, Svalbard and Iceland. Its wintering grounds are less well known because the species winters far out to sea where major currents meet and nutrients stream to the surface. The main wintering grounds currently known are in the Humboldt Current off the coast of western South America and the Canary Current and North Equatorial Current in the Atlantic Ocean off West Africa. They also occur in some number in the Benguela Current off south-west Africa (Tracy et al. 2002). While it is likely that the Icelandic population winters off West Africa there is no direct evidence for this.

It can be said that the Red Phalarope is a seabird as it spends 10-11 months of the year at sea. The first migrants arrive in Iceland in the third week of May, the last Icelandic breeder to get here, but the majority appear to come in the first week of June. The breeding biology of phalaropes is rather unusual; the females are more brightly coloured (Photo 1) and the males are entirely responsible for incubating the eggs and raising the young. Females can therefore easily mate with more than one male, a type of behaviour known as polyandry. Less than 1% of bird species in the world are known to behave in this way (Ward 2000). This breeding behaviour means that females are able to leave Iceland before the males, some doing so in the second half of June after a stay of only 3-4 weeks in the country. Most young have fledged by the end of July and at the end of July-beginning of August Red Phalaropes have typically left their Icelandic breeding grounds (Gillandt 1974, Kristinn H. Skarphéðinsson et al. 1994, Yann Kolbeinsson unpublished data).

Although getting to Iceland is straightforward enough, finding a Red Phalarope is not necessarily so easy. The species is both rare and favours remote areas of the country. Furthermore, rules on access to breeding sites were introduced with Act No. 64/1994 on the protection, conservation and hunting of wild birds and mammals. Under these rules it is prohibited to visit a breeding site of the Red Phalarope without prior permission from the Environment Agency of Iceland. Consequently, the location of breeding sites has been kept secret and no precise localities are given in this article – instead the country is divided into four quadrants for the sake of convenience.
The Icelandic Red Phalarope population was believed to number fewer than 100 pairs when an estimate was first made in 1975 (Arnþór Garðarsson 1975). In 1987 the Icelandic Institute of Natural History and BirdLife Iceland carried out the first detailed census and survey of the distribution of the Red Phalarope in Iceland (Kristinn H. Skarphéðinsson 1987). All new Red Phalarope sites were investigated with the help of amateur birdwatchers and this survey was based on an extensive review of all the available information on the status of the Red Phalarope in Iceland (Kristinn H. Skarphéðinsson and Ævar Petersen 1987, unpublished data).

Ten years later the same organizations conducted another survey on the Red Phalarope, this time only visiting sites where birds had been recorded during the previous survey (Jóhann Óli Hilmarsson and Kristinn H. Skarphéðinsson 1998). When I commenced my studies on the ecology of the Red Phalarope and the Red-necked Phalarope in south-east Iceland in 2004 I decided to use the opportunity to assess the status of the Icelandic Red Phalarope population again.

The project was again undertaken with the help of BirdLife Iceland, the Icelandic Institute of Natural History and a number of amateur birdwatchers across Iceland. Recent observations indicated that numbers of Red Phalarope had increased, at least in south-east Iceland, but little else was known about the size of population on a nationwide basis since 1997. The required permits from the Environment Agency of Iceland were obtained and it was decided to investigate the areas where Red Phalaropes were recorded in the last surveys and also to check other areas which had not been studied at all or were poorly known if the opportunity arose. This article will present and discuss the results of the survey conducted in 2004-2005, which was repeated in 2010, as well as the results of the earlier surveys.


With the help of birdwatchers from across Iceland I managed to visit all the key sites in June 2004, 2005 and 2010. The focus was on checking sites where the birds were seen in 1987 and 1997, in addition to other likely and little studied sites as time and manpower allowed. A site is defined here as a place which is more than 5 km from the next Red Phalarope.

Results of the survey In 1987 at least 73 birds were found at 11 sites, while only 44 birds at six sites were recorded in 1997. This decrease was a cause of great concern (Kristinn H. Skarphéðinsson 1987, Jóhann Óli Hilmarsson & Kristinn H. Skarphéðinsson 1998, Jóhann Óli Hilmarsson & Kristinn H. Skarphéðinsson in litt.). Between 7 June and 2 July 2004 a total of 18 sites were surveyed across Iceland, excluding the West Fjords where the bird does not appear to occur. Red Phalaropes were found at 11 sites and they turned out to be far more numerous than before, totalling 186 birds. As in 1997 the vast majority were found in south-east Iceland, i.e. 140 birds at four sites. This time around a significant number (47 birds) were found at two poorly known sites and at least 97 birds were found in the area where most birds were recorded in 1987 and 1997. Only two birds were found in south-west Iceland, 26 in north-west Iceland (in the Breiðafjörður area) and 19 in north-east Iceland. As in the previous surveys, far more males were seen than females (66% of sexed birds, n=186).

Between 9 and 26 June 2005, a total of 15 areas were surveyed; 13 of these were the same as in 2004 and two new unexplored areas were also studied. Red Phalaropes were found at eight sites and there had been a significant increase since 2004; almost 260 birds were found, the highest number recorded in Iceland. Once again, the overwhelming majority of birds were seen in south-east Iceland, or 210. In 2005 a total of 98 birds were seen at the “new” sites which were surveyed in 2004. The difference between years is partly explained by the fact that the areas were examined 10-20 days earlier in the breeding season while more birds are present at breeding sites (11-12 June 2005 compared with 22 June and 2 July 2004). No Red Phalaropes were found in south-west Iceland in 2005, 31 in north-west Iceland (Breiðafjörður) and 16 in north-east Iceland. The ratio of males to females was similar to the 2004 survey, or 71% of sexed birds (n=244).

In June 2010 the emphasis was on revisiting the sites where birds were seen in the summers of 2004-05, plus a few additional sites where birds had been discovered in the meantime. Ten areas were surveyed and figures from June 2009 were used for a further three areas which could not be surveyed in the summer of 2010. Red Phalaropes were found at 11 sites and the number of birds had decreased to just over 180, which is nevertheless a high number compared with the censuses conducted in 1987 and 1997. As before, most birds were in south-east Iceland, or 145. One Red Phalarope was found in south-west Iceland, 18 in north-west Iceland (Breiðafjörður) and 20 in north-east Iceland, where the number of birds had decreased by almost half at the main breeding sites, while birds were located at two “new” sites. The ratio of males to females was similar to the summer of 2004, or 65% of sexed birds (n=181).


It is safe to say that the results of the censuses in 2004-2005 came as a great surprise as the total was at least 271 birds. Owing to the distorted ratio between the sexes it is difficult to say how many pairs there are, but given that a female can mate with several males, one could base an estimate on the number of males and thus conclude that there are approximately 180 “pairs.” However, I would rather specify the overall number of birds in this case.

The total number is almost four times the number counted in 1987 and six times as many as in 1997. Despite the decrease between 2005 and 2010 the population is nevertheless rather large, at least 184 birds or more than twice as many as in 1987 and four times more than in 1997. It can be assumed that there were 120 “pairs” in the last census. The increase in the last decade must be regarded with a certain degree of caution, however.

It is clear that the Red Phalarope has increased in number, particularly in south-east Iceland where one breeding site has been monitored regularly since the first breeding pair was seen there in 1986 (Hálfdán Björnsson in litt., Kristinn H. Skarphéðinsson & Ævar Petersen unpublished data). It seems likely that Red Phalaropes were present in the other areas of south-east Iceland previously, but owing to the difficulty of access to these sites they had never been properly studied. The number in other parts of the country was similar to 1987, with the exception of south-west Iceland where the species has in fact disappeared.

It was actually in south-west Iceland that the species used to have its largest colony, at Hraunsárós west of Stokkseyri. This colony is believed to have peaked around 1968 when dozens of pairs could be found here, but numbers steadily decreased and only a single pair was seen in the 1987 survey (Kristinn H. Skarphéðinsson et al. 1994). Since then Red Phalaropes have only appeared very irregularly at this site, although a male was recorded here in 2004. It is important to monitor trends in the population in the coming years.

From the recent surveys it can be safely concluded that Iceland holds a good proportion of the North Atlantic Red Phalarope population and it needs to be closely monitored and protected. Precise counts have not been carried out on Svalbard or in Greenland but rough estimates suggest that there are 150-500 pairs in Greenland and 200-1000 pairs on Svalbard (BirdLife International 2004).


On behalf of BirdLife Iceland and the Icelandic Institute of Natural History I would like to thank all those involved in the census for their help and the time they put into the project. They are: Aðalsteinn Örn Snæþórsson, Edward Barry Rickson, Gaukur Hjartarson, Guðmundur Örn Benediktsson, Gunnar Þór Hallgrímsson, Hallgrímur Gunnarsson, Hálfdán Björnsson, Hlynur Óskarsson, Hrafn Svavarsson, Jakob Sigurðsson, Jóhann Óli Hilmarsson, Jón Gunnar Jóhannsson, Kristinn Haukur Skarphéðinsson, Ólafur Á. Torfason, Sverrir Thorstensen, Þorkell Lindberg Þórarinsson, Þorvaldur Björnsson and Ævar Petersen. Without their help it would not have been possible. The Kvísker Fund and the Icelandic Research Fund for Graduate Students funded the author’s research into the ecology of the Red Phalarope and the Red-necked Phalarope in south-east Iceland. Arnþór Garðarsson, Guðmundur A. Guðmundsson and Kristinn H. Skarphéðinsson read the manuscript and made invaluable improvements and I would like to thank them for this.


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This is a translation of an article which was originally published in Icelandic in the Icelandic ornithological journal Bliki (Yann Kolbeinsson 2011. Staða íslenska þórshanastofnsins. – Bliki 31: 36-40). It has been reproduced here with the kind permission of the author and the editorial board of Bliki.

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