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Wilson's phalarope: the rare bird creating whirl in Belfast

BY LINDA STEWART

Published 29/08/2013

Wilson's phalarope
Wilson's phalarope

Scores of wildlife fans have flocked to the RSPB's Belfast Harbour Reserve to capture a "once in a generation" sighting of a rare bird.

The juvenile Wilson's phalarope showed up yesterday morning, feeding on invertebrates among the other waders on the mudflats.

The rare migrant breeds and winters on the other side of the Atlantic and has only appeared in Northern Ireland a handful of times. And thanks to the power of social media, word soon spread.

"Within half-an-hour of the first text going out, it was on the internet," warden Chris Sturgeon said.

"There was one man who was down there for four hours trying to get a photo of it.

"We've had over 40 people here to see it so far – for us, on a Wednesday, that is pretty good. There are a lot of people out there who haven't heard about it, so I am expecting a lot of interest tomorrow."

The phalarope is a common wetland breeding bird on the other side of south west Canada and the north west United States and migrates to inland salt lakes near the Andes in South America to over-winter.

That's why it is so rare to see one here – although, amazingly, one did show up at Belfast Harbour Reserve two years ago and stayed for a month.

Its unusual feeding technique has all the visitors entranced – like other phalaropes, the bird often spins on the water at speeds of up to 60 turns per minute.

The purpose of this whirling behaviour may be to churn the muddy bottom, excite small aquatic creatures, and condense them in the swirls, where they can be picked off the surface. Wilson's phalaropes consume flies, beetles, brine shrimp and other tiny marine creatures.

One birdwatcher who is thinking of heading down to see the phalarope is DUP South Down MLA Jim Wells, who narrowly missed out on seeing the last one, arriving a week too late.

"If I get a chance I'll go down – it's a once in a generation thing in a Northern Ireland context and an exceptionally rare little bird with an unusual life cycle," he said.

"They spend huge amounts of time out on the rolling seas and yet they are tiny little things."

RSPB volunteer Wallis Jefferson said the phalarope is attracting a lot of attention.

"We're absolutely delighted to see it. At this time of year we're always looking out for unusual birds," he said.

"We're in migration season now and there are a lot of different ones passing through, so we're always on the lookout for something different."

FACTFILE

Wilson's phalarope is a unique, dainty shore bird with lobed toes and a fine black bill. The breeding female is predominantly gray and brown above, with white underparts, a reddish neck and reddish flank patches. The breeding male is a duller version of the female, with a brown back, and the reddish patches reduced or absent. It is the largest phalarope.

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