Epic Migration of Shetland Island Birds

Advances in modern technology are helping researchers track migration patterns of birds and other animals in a way that has never before been possible – with some mind-boggling results. It was recently discovered that red-necked phalaropes from the island of Fetlar in Shetland migrate all the way to the coast of Peru and Ecuador in South America for the winter. Whereas previously experts thought these small waders were medium-distance migrants, they are now known to be long-distance migrants in the same league as Arctic terns and swallows.

Working with Dave Okill of the Shetland Ringing Group and the Swiss Ornithological Institute, the RSPB fitted tiny geolocators to ten red-necked phalaropes on the island of Fetlar in 2012. Weighing only 0.6g, these geolocators are fitted in such a way as not to interfere with the birds’ natural routine. Last spring researchers were able to recapture one of the birds that had been tagged, and unravel the mystery of where they go to during the winter months. In turned out that after leaving Shetland, they travel across the Atlantic Ocean, skirting Iceland and Greenland before heading south down the eastern coast of the United States, across the Caribbean region and stopping off the coast of Peru and Ecuador, making the return journey as summer approaches in the northern hemisphere – a round-trip of 16,000 miles. What makes this epic journey of the red-necked phalaropes especially remarkable is that they are the only birds now known to migrate westward into the Pacific, as all other migrating birds leaving the area go east. Another interesting point about red-necked phalathropes is that the males incubate the eggs and carefor the young in the summer months, while the brightly colored females attempt to attract new partners.

The new information also shows experts that the red-necked phalaropes in the Shetland Isles are an offshoot of a North American population, rather than from Scandinavia as previously thought. They are found in the Arctic regions of North America and Eurasia and are considered by the IUCN to be of ‘least concern’ from a conservation point of view. But in Scotland they are rather rare, with the main population of around 40 breeding males being found on Fetlar’s Loch of Funzie, and smaller populations in the Outer Hebrides.

Birding enthusiasts visiting Scotland will no doubt appreciate efforts being made by conservationists to understand and protect the birds of this spectacularly beautiful part of the world.