Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Grey Phalarope (Phalaropus fulicarius) - Hove Lagoon, East Sussex. January 2014

The Phalarope species have always been a favourite of mine and I've been lucky to see all three species in the UK, Grey, Red-necked and the rare Wilson's Phalarope. The Grey Phalarope is no bigger than a Starling and breeds on coastal tundra in the high Arctic and spends the winter at sea off the west coast of Africa, which for its small dainty size is surprising to say the least.

All three species of Phalarope are sexually dimorphic, meaning that the female of the species has brighter breeding plumage and initiates breeding, it is the males that are left to tend to the eggs and bring up the young.

It is an uncommon annual migrant to the UK, with numbers depending very much on the weather conditions. Most frequently it is seen off south-west coasts during migration, especially after strong storms and usually in late autumn. Some birds get driven inland during bad weather and some have been known to winter.

When news of a Grey Phalarope which had been found in a paddling pool at Hove Lagoon, East Sussex filtered out across the birding community I instantly became interested. Various photos showed this bird to be within incredibly close proximity to it's observers and that just added to my interest, I decided that once there was a break in the dreadful weather that had engulfed the UK for sometime and if the bird was still present I would head down and see it.


Louise and I arrived at Hove and after parking the car took a walk along the sea front towards Hove Lagoon. The weather was incredibly good, the sun shining with a cool but calm breeze coming in off the sea. We made our way along a busy seafront bathed in a warm winter sun passing a number of tea shops which bustled with eager customers.

After a few minutes walk we arrived at the paddling pool next to the Big Beach Café. I was taken back by how small the pool was, it wasn't particularly wide and it certainly wasn't deep which was proven when a gentlemen walked out to the middle of the pool to distribute a handful of worms with the water barely reaching the top of his walking boots. The biggest surprise was how close the Grey Phalarope actually was, as I stood on the outside of the paddling pool looking over the adjacent fence it was an incredible sight to see this dainty wader swimming around a few feet in front the assembled crowd

A number of people had spread themselves around the edge of the pool, laying down with cameras at the ready so I found a bench and sat down at one end of the paddling pool and set up my scope. I was desperate to get some good photos of this little wader and decided to use my new Canon EOS 600D rather than attempt to digiscope it, it wasn't sitting still too much and by the time I got it in view through my scope it moved, it was so close at times I couldn't get the whole bird in view. Decision made, I quickly attached the 600D to my scope tripod and waited patiently for the Phalarope to find it's way to my side of the paddling pool, it didn't take long for the bird to paddle it's way towards me and whilst in awe of it I began to rattle away with the camera.

I had close views of a Grey Phalarope at Farmoor Reservoir, Oxon a some years ago but this was so much closer, it was so close at times you could have put your hand out and patted it on the head. The supply of worms it was getting for free obviously helped but it seemed happy to go about it's business as usual and wasn't under any stress from the attention it was receiving. I believe the assumption is that this Phalarope had probably never had human contact before and therefore had no reason to fear close contact. It seemed a pretty plausible especially when the Phalarope came within a few feet without a care in the world.

Every now and again it wandered out of the water to preen, stretch it's wings and have a wander around the edge of the pool. On one such occasion I was delighted to have the Phalarope right in front of me as it did just this, I was even more pleased when I realised that I had managed to capture this on my camera.

The Phalarope was certainly making the most of the food that was being offered, swimming quickly around the pool then suddenly turning and spinning round and round like a spinning top to stir up invertebrates in the water below, it then suddenly stops and begins to stare down to the waters surface. Then the Phalarope upends, immersing it's head beneath the waters surface whilst showing it's white underbelly and partially webbed feet. In a matter of moments the Phalarope returns to the surface splashing drops of water across it's head and body, which in turn roll down it's waterproof feathers back in to the water. In it's beak is a small blood worm which is swallowed down quickly before it returns to swimming and spinning around the paddling pool again.

It was quite surreal setting with the bustling seafront on one side and adjacent play park that was in constant use on the other, In between these sat the paddling pool with the Grey Phalarope and it's many observers in situ. On the outside of the paddling pool perimeter fence a crowd of enthralled passers-by stopped to enquire about the seafront's star attraction with many taking photos on their cameras and phones.

As the sun started to fade the temperature started to drop and after being in the company of this amazing little Phalarope for a good few hours my fingers started to numb with the cold. I started to pack up my gear with one eye on a number of large Gulls and Crows that were now perusing the adjacent play park, paddling pool and probably the Phalarope itself.

A fantastic bird, on a beautiful winters day, who could ask for more.

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