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Confounding phalaropes are shorebirds that act like ducks

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Our Evergreen World

By Sylvia Brockner

In last week’s article, I mentioned that many people had reported seeing phalaropes on Buchanan Pond on Sunday, April 21. Since then, I have had many inquiries about these birds such as: “What are they?” “Why haven’t we ever seen one?” “Where are they found?”

Phalaropes are a small genus of shorebird that apparently think they are ducks for they swim regularly while the other shorebirds either do not swim at all, or if they do, it is very infrequent. Phalaropes do not have fully webbed feet as ducks do, but they do have scallops or lobes of web-like material along the sides of their toes, which propel them in the water.
They also spin around in circles, which is their method of feeding. This roiling of the water brings small animals to the surface where they are gobbled up by the phalaropes. This whirligig action is so typical of phalaropes that it’s all you need to see to know you are looking at one. Phalaropes are small compared with a duck and seem much daintier in appearance. They also have round-pointed beaks, not the broad flat bills that most ducks have. They are only about the size of a lesser yellowleg, which makes them look more like a shorebird than a duck. There are only three species in the genus, and all three of them can be seen here during migration.
Of the three, the Wilson’s phalarope is by far the most common here and can be seen all summer because they nest on the plains. The other two species, the red phalarope and the red-necked phalarope, both nest in the arctic. All three species can be seen here in both spring and fall migration but in greater numbers in the spring. They do not usually come into the mountains because they are most certainly not forest birds.
However, you can frequently see small lakes that are filled with them in spring migration on the plains. Look for them in April on any of the small ponds east of Denver. I suggest that you go to the library and look them up in any of the better field guides that show the birds in various plumage — juvenile, adult breeding, adult non-breeding, etc. — for these birds are quite similar in some plumage and are very difficult to tell apart.
All of the phalaropes are different from the other birds in the fact that the females are the most brilliantly colored in plumage, and females only lay eggs and then depart, leaving the entire incubation and rearing of the young to the less colorful males. At least that is what the books say.
However, when Bill and I were in the arctic near Cambridge Bay many years ago, we saw red phalaropes almost daily, and the day of our departure as we waited for our plane to land, we noticed the runway was alive with baby phalaropes.
I began picking them up and taking them to a nearby area where I hoped they would stay. As I stooped down with the last handful, a female red phalarope came up and literally scooped them out of my hands with her bill, wings and body, and then kept them in tow into the new area. During all this time, she was scolding in soft little chirps. I couldn’t decide whether she was muttering about her mate, “I knew he couldn’t take good care of those kids,” or whether she was scolding them, “I thought I taught you never to ride with a stranger.” But whatever it was, she was most definitely in charge and kept those chicks in tow as long as I could see her. Then our plane came in, and we departed.
The Wilson’s phalarope can sometimes be found here in summer because they nest on the plains near muddy pools and marshes. Just remember that if you see a little shorebird swimming and spinning around in circles, it is a phalarope. Make notes on color and where the color is located as well as the size and shape of its needle-like bill, and then get the books out to see if you can determine which species you are looking at. They are quite gaudy little birds in their adult colors and their whirligiging is a sight to see.