Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Hodgepodge 192/365 - Phalaropes

Male on the left, female on the right
On our regular walk at the local Frog Pond today, we ran into a woman peering intently through binoculars. "See anything interesting?" we asked. She explained that she's taking a birdwatching class, and the teacher had informed them that a phalarope, a pelagic bird that's rarely sighted ashore, has been whooping it up at our very own pond. But she hadn't managed to spot it yet.

We continued on our way, and when we arrived at the deck overlooking the pond, sure enough, there they were: not one, but two red phalaropes (Phalaropus fulicarius—the genus means "coot footed" in Greek), a male and a female, spinning dizzily on the water's surface. Just lovely!

Phalaropes, members of the sandpiper family, are notable for a few reasons. First, they reverse the usual sexual dimorphism, with females being bigger and flashier than the males. The female also breaks with avian tradition by taking the lead in courtship. And once she has laid her mottled olive-brown eggs in the birds' extreme northerly nesting grounds, the female starts her southward migration, leaving the male to incubate the eggs and care for the chicks, a job that lasts just shy of forty days (or less: the young can take care of themselves if the dad is eager to get on his way).

Non-breeding plumage
Second, they have a curious manner of feeding, which we saw very well today: swimming in a small, tight circle, they create a little vortex that lifts insects and tiny crustaceans to the surface, which they can then pluck up. Out in the open ocean—where they spend most of their time—they are often found in areas where converging currents cause upwellings; they may also land on mats of floating seaweed and pick parasites from the backs of whales.

Breeding grounds
Red phalaropes winter out to sea well south of the equator, off southern South America, West Africa, and South Africa. This pair must be making its way north to Alaska. I'm glad they decided to pay a visit onshore: it was delightful to watch them dancing their feeding pas-de-deux.

1 comment:

  1. Did you have your binoculars strapped around your neck? Because I know Patty would!