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home : • birding w/don reimer : birding w/don reimer
January 29, 2020

9/26/2012 11:35:00 AM
Phalaropes -
A Red-Necked Phalarope (top) and a Wilson’s Phalarope (bottom) - Photos by Don Reimer
A Red-Necked Phalarope (top) and a Wilson’s Phalarope (bottom) - Photos by Don Reimer
by Don Reimer

It's no secret that I enjoy shorebirds. In the past 15 years or so, I have observed 30 different species feeding or roosting at Weskeag Marsh in South Thomaston. The "rarest" discovery was probably a second-year male Ruff, a Eurasian species that somehow wandered off course during its fall journey to Australia.

All shorebirds are remarkable creatures, but I confess to having some favorites. I'm thinking of the three phalarope species, dainty creatures with thin, straight bills and boundless physical energy. This year I observed two of the three phalarope species (Red-necked and Wilson's Phalarope) in Weskeag's front pool areas. The third species, Red Phalarope, remains mostly offshore.

Phalaropes break the traditional mold of most tundra-nesting shorebirds. The females are larger than males and are more brightly colored during the summer nesting season. The male's duller plumage serves well in his role of incubating the four-egg clutch, where camouflaged coloration is a protective advantage for vulnerable ground-nesters. Females breed with multiple mates (polyandry) and leave the breeding grounds once egg laying is completed.

The phalaropes have a unique feeding style. Using their lobed toes to stir the water, phalaropes spin in tight, rapid circles to create a vortex in the water. This concentric whirling motion elevates food particles up toward the surface. Phalaropes also trail closely behind paddling waterfowl to take advantage of food kicked up by web-footed ducks.

In mid-August I watched a single Red-necked Phalarope feed among a flock of sandpipers and yellowlegs. When fully engaged in their feeding rituals, phalaropes are unbelievably focused on matters at hand. The Red-necked is a pelagic species that has suffered dramatic population declines since the 1980s.

According to conservation biologist Charles Duncan: "In those times, the Red-necked Phalarope migrated in great numbers off the coast of Eastport and Campobello Island in New Brunswick, with numbers as high as two million, perhaps a fourth of the world population. This was reported as far back as John James Audubon."

"Then Red-necked Phalarope numbers dropped from 20,000 a day to 2,000 a day, to 200, to 20, then zero. No one has found another spot where they may have shifted their migration. This decline is absolutely unexplained," Duncan says.

In September, I discovered a Wilson's Phalarope feeding close to the Buttermilk Lane roadside. This pot-bellied bird had already molted into its plain gray-and-white winter plumage. Named for pioneering ornithologist Alexander Wilson, this is the largest of the phalaropes. It nests in the western prairies of North America and winters below the Equator.

Wilson's are "halophilic," or salt-loving, birds that often dine on salty prey, utilizing a specialized body mechanism to rid themselves of excess salt. During fall migration, sizeable flocks feed on brine shrimp and alkali flies at Mono Lake in California and Utah's Great Salt Lake.

The Weskeag Wilson's made a notable impression. Totally ignoring my presence, he charged across the pool to forage just a few yards away. Sweeping his bill from side to side in a frantic manner, the hungry bird scrambled to gather insect larvae and tiny crustaceans. With laser accuracy, he reached back over his shoulder to snap a buzzing insect out of the air. In shallower water, his body adjusted automatically to subtle changes in water depth by telescoping his legs beneath him and scudding along on his belly. His whirlwind actions even flustered some of the more sedate shorebirds, as several Lesser Yellowlegs fluttered and nipped at his passing wake. Like me, they seemed overwhelmed by this bird's utter phalaropity!

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