Wilson’s Phalarope | Prairie Public Broadcasting

Wilson’s Phalarope

May 9, 2020

As I record this, I have yet to see a Wilson’s phalarope this year, and I am getting impatient to do so. Phalaropes must be our smallest shorebird. They are a rather thin shorebird with long legs, long neck, and long, thin, and straight bill. They are much smaller than a killdeer, and even a sandpiper. They are an interesting bird, and also great entertainment.

If you spend some time around marshes and other shallow water areas sooner or later you are bound to see them. Charles Flugum described them accurately in his 1975 book Birding from a Tractor Seat.

“…the most beautiful of our shorebirds, are sometimes called swimming sandpipers. Their plumage is thick and ducklike, so they ride on the water buoyantly. Although they often wade while feeding (like true sandpipers) they characteristically spin while swimming, supposedly to disturb aquatic life on which they feed.”

Wilson’s phalaropes spend their winters in South America but migrate northward to breed in wet marshy areas roughly north and westward of a line from southeastern South Dakota to northern California. They can be found across North Dakota but are more frequently observed north and east of the Missouri River where wetlands are more abundant. The female will lay four eggs (always from what I have read) in a shallow scrape amongst the vegetation of a wet meadow or similar site.

There is some interesting biology here. Once she lays the eggs, she leaves, usually to find another mate. So the male is left to tend the nest and rear the young. Most male birds are colorful, in part to attract the females while the females are generally rather drab to provide protective coloration while incubating the eggs. But as you might be expecting, it is the opposite with phalaropes. It is the males that are rather drab. But the females quite colorful, with a blueish-gray back, white undersides, a peach colored neck, white throat, and a dark stripe through the eye with a white eyebrow.

So be on the lookout for these interesting small birds on shallow water habitats. They will probably be swimming in small circles poking their beaks into the water in an effort to stir up and displace insects and other invertebrates. They will probably remind you of small sewing machines bobbing around in the water.

-Chuck Lura