Red-necked Phalarope

Donald Shephard

If the current rainy season proves productive, vernal pools will form on the landward side of Heeser Drive in the Mendocino Headlands State Park. Turn your attention away from the everfascinating ocean and you may see a Red-necked Phalarope spinning in the water. I watched my first phalarope, a Wilson's, at the Sugar Ponds near Woodland. Observe through binoculars as this buoyant, little bird, held high in the water by a thick patch of underbelly feathers, spins like a demented toy, and nausea quickly results. This whirligig action, propelled by lobed toes, creates a vortex of water that brings small insects and crustaceans to the surface. Phalaropes pluck the goodies and open their beak. They use the water surface tension to 'wick' their prey from the tip of their bills into their mouths. During the breeding season and when on fresh water, they eat mostly insects. At saline lakes, they consume brine shrimp in large numbers. At sea, they eat zooplankton and other small creatures that rise to the surface at convergence zones and upwellings. All three, Wilson's, Red, and Red-necked Phalaropes, gyrate in this manner. The Rednecked (formerly the Northern) Phalarope, at sparrow size (7 inches), rates the smallest pelagic bird. The breeding female shows predominantly dark grey above, with a chestnut neck and upper breast, black face and white throat. The breeding male presents a duller version of the female. Young birds look grey and brown above, with buff underparts and a black patch through the eye. In winter, the plumage appears essentially grey above and white below, but the black eye-patch identifies them. Their finer bills and bodies distinguish them from their congener, the Red Phalarope. Red-necked Phalaropes, like Red Phalaropes, but unlike other shorebirds, prefer to swim rather than wade, a habit that enables them to spend the winter on the high seas, although on occasion they wade in pools and feed on mudflats with many other shorebirds. Red-necked Phalaropes spend up to ten months at a time at sea. You may see overland migrants on reservoirs, lakes, and coastal marshes. This phalarope breeds in the Arctic regions of North America and Eurasia. In winter they spend all their time at sea in three areas: off the Arabian Peninsula; around Indonesia and the Philippines; and off the Pacific coast of Peru.

Red-necked Phalarope photo courtesy of Ashok Khosa

Females arrive on the breeding grounds before males. Like other phalaropes, they practice polyandry with reversed sex roles; breeding females display brighter plumage than males and slightly larger body size. The species is largely non-territorial, but females fight ferociously over males, which provide all parental care. Females establish territories and display to attract mates.Red-necked Phalarope Both sexes start scrapes on mounds or tussocks near the water, and the female picks one. The male adds a lining of grass, sedge, lichen, and leaves in a shallow depression concealed in sedge,ferns, grass, or shrubs. After laying four eggs, the female leaves the male to incubate the eggs and provide all parental care. The male incubates the eggs, cares for the young and therefore displays muted colors. Scientists found a correlation between the aggression of the female, her brighter colors, and her lack of post-natal duties and endocrine levels.

Although they provide no parental duties, females can mate with multiple males each year, and produce up to four sets of eggs. Jaegers, gulls, and foxes are documented sources of mortality for eggs and adults on the nesting grounds; jaegers, dolphins, storms, and El Nino are documented sources of mortality at sea.

In western North America, tens of thousands use hyper-saline lakes as fueling stations on their way south to the Humboldt Current off Peru and Ecuador. In eastern North America, massive flocks totaling millions formerly staged in fall in the western Bay of Fundy; in recent years, these have disappeared. This troubling development remains a puzzle, like much of the pelagic biology of this species. Japanese observers have recorded similar declines in numbers of their populations of migratory phalaropes.

In Alaska, one may see hundreds or thousands of phalaropes in swirling clouds that rise and fall above the sea surface, or forming large lines of swimming birds, in a feeding frenzy.

Though small in stature, phalarope concentrations on the ocean rival any seabird aggregation for intensity and beauty. Here, at the coast, the Red-necked Phalarope entertains us not with massive numbers but with beauty and its frenetic feeding habit. We easily understand the collective nouns for these birds, a "swirl", "twirl", "whirl", and "whirligig" of phalaropes.

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