Record-breaking bird inspires musical masterpiece

Kirsty Nutt

Monday 27 June 2016

A special piece of music inspired by the remarkable migration journey of one of Britain's rarest breeding birds will today be performed by over 2000 children at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

The musical ballad, inspired by RSPB Scotland's discovery of the red-necked phalarope's incredible 16,000 mile migration route from Shetland to Peru, will be performed by children during the Haringey Schools Music Festival.

The song-cycle, titled 'One Small Bird: Ballad of the Red-necked Phalarope', was composed by Kate Stilitz and Jilly Jarman and was commissioned specially for this event. The piece, made up of six songs the last of which is in Spanish, will see performers coming together from London and Lima, capital of Peru, in recognition of this exciting and fascinating Shetland-based project.

Kate said: "Following a visit to Peru by Haringey young musicians last year and in anticipation of the arrival of 50 young musicians from Lima this summer, Peter Desmond, Head of music at Haringey music service commissioned us to write a song cycle that would explore connections between the two countries. We had been exploring Andean Legends which tell wonderful tales of Hummingbirds and Condors when we stumbled across the BBC article about the migration of the red-necked phalarope - a small, obscure creature doing something heroic - and that's where our song cycle began."

Until 2013, the wintering location of Shetland's phalaropes was a mystery and it was assumed they went to the Arabian Sea like those that breed in Scandinavia. In 2012, tiny geolocators were attached to breeding red-necked phalaropes in Shetland by RSPB Scotland, working in collaboration with the Swiss Ornithological Institute and the Shetland Ringing Group.

One was recovered the following year and the data was remarkable: the bird had migrated to the Pacific Ocean and spent the winter in the waters between the Galapagos Islands, mainland Ecuador and Peru. This epic return journey of 16,000 miles had never before been recorded for a European breeding bird.

Malcie Smith, Species and Habitats Officer for RSPB Scotland, said: "When we started this project, we never expected to discover such an amazing migration journey and we certainly didn't expect our phalaropes' journey to be celebrated by inspiring a musical production!"

The performances will involve choirs and young instrumentalists from 48 primary and secondary schools in Haringey, north London along with the Borough's youth Symphony Orchestra, Big Band, Steel Pan, guitar ensembles, youth choir Haringey Vox and 50 young musicians from Lima, Peru.

Haringey children have also been exploring the story of the phalarope's journey through visual art and poetry and some of their poems will be performed as part of the piece. The story of a tiny bird that weighs no more than a packet of crisps travelling to the other side of the world and flying into prevailing winds has inspired the children and their teachers.

Aisha, a ten year old pupil at Tiverton Primary, said: "It makes me think that no matter what your size, if you have courage you can do anything you want". Rojelat, aged eight, added: 'When it's in South America, it's black and grey and white, when it's in Shetland it's brown and red. That's amazing! No human can do that."

Tiverton Primary in Tottenham has now been in touch with the school in Fetlar in Shetland which currently has four pupils and the pupils have begun to send each other vlogs.

Their Assistant Headteacher, Siobhan Barry, explained the positive impact the music project has had: "The children's understanding of the natural world and other places in the world outside of our inner-city environment has been greatly enhanced by this beautiful project which has allowed them to connect with nature in an immersive manner."

For further information and to arrange an interview, please contact:

Kirsty Nutt, RSPB Scotland Communications Officer, on 01224 627869 or 07711385595.

They should be credited to the photographer in the title and only used in relation to this story.

Editor's notes:



1. The Haringey Schools Music Festival will have two performances at Royal Albert Hall at 3 pm and 7 pm on 27 June.


2. Famed for turning the tables on traditional gender roles, in summer, male birds can be found incubating eggs and raising young, while the female uses her brightly coloured plumage to attract new partners. In winter, phalaropes congregate in large flocks at sea in regions where currents create upwellings of cold, nutrient-rich water and support blooms of plankton on which the birds feed.


3. Some of the children's poems are available at


4. The RSPB is the UK's largest nature conservation charity, inspiring everyone to give nature a home. Together with our partners, we protect threatened birds and wildlife so our towns, coast and countryside will teem with life once again. We play a leading role in BirdLife International, a worldwide partnership of nature conservation organisations.

Last Updated: Tuesday 28 August 2018

Tagged with: Country: Scotland Country: UK Topic: Science Topic: Youth