Robin Song introduces us to a charming little bird in the sandpiper family, with unusual mating and chick rearing roles. It’s an uncommon nester in this area…the red-necked phalarope. Text follows audio.
An email caught my eye in early July from a local birder. Laurie Evans reported that she had Red-necked Phalarope chicks on her pond and was inviting anyone by who wanted to see them. She believed they might have hatched on July third, and that there were possibly five chicks.
Having never seen phalarope chicks in real life, I took a trip over to her place on July fourth. It was heavy overcast, and not ideal lighting for photography, but I wanted to see the chicks as soon as possible, as they mature quickly. It didn’t look like the weather was going to change anytime soon.
The pond lies down the hill behind Laurie’s home, and at the edge of a wetland. Laurie’s family had erected several swallow nest boxes around the pond and many swallows darted low over the water, snatching up flying insects. As Lyra and I approached the small wharf, three phalaropes swam across the pond to check us out. One came right up to the paddleboat in front of me, tilting his head this way and that, peering at my camera lens as I snapped his portrait. His crème, brown, and black plumage stood out against the dark water. I didn’t see any chicks in sight, and decided to walk around the perimeter of the pond. Perhaps they were in the tall grass on the far side.
Swallows swooped past me, constantly hunting insects for their voracious young, which were calling from the various nest boxes. From the strength of their vocalizations, it sounded like they were about ready to fledge. Insects dotted the water. It was a fine place for these birds to be raising families.
One of the phalaropes kept pace with me as I made my way around the pond. In a few places there were lily pads just off shore. The bird would paddle over to a lily pad and gracefully climb aboard. The pad barely moved, under the bird’s diminutive weight. It was a charming scene, to see this small bird standing on the large green lily pad, like something out of a Fairy Tale.
Then I saw it: a small sienna-colored fuzzy chick emerged from the tall grass just off shore to my left. The phalarope chick paddled out into the pond, making its way across to the far shore. I watched it through my zoom lens. When it realized I wasn’t pursuing it, the chick relaxed and slowed its pace. It stopped, at one point, and looked into the water, darting its tiny beak in to grab an insect. Then the chick continued on, and when it reached the tall stalks of water grass, it turned and paddled parallel to the shoreline, head darting this way and that as it hunted for food. A few yards away the adult kept pace, watching that I didn’t approach the chick. Once I spotted the chick, I was happy to stand still, and just watch it through my binoculars and camera lens. It was a beautiful little thing, and I appreciated the opportunity to see it.
The other chicks were nowhere to be seen. Chicks are vulnerable to several kinds of predators, and it seemed there had been a heavy toll in the last twenty-four hours. I wondered if the other two adults were survivors of last summer’s broods on this pond. Perhaps they had lost their broods of this summer to predators as well. Even with plenty of food and good weather, it can still be hard to bring a brood through their vulnerable chickhood.
The next day the sun shone through the clouds unexpectedly and I decided to make a trip back to the pond to see if I could get better photos of the chick. Things were entirely different. There were almost no swallows to be seen. Only one adult phalarope was in the pond. When Lyra and I arrived, the phalarope launched and flew off to the east. I thought perhaps the chick had crossed the marsh with the other two adults and they were out in the larger waterway. I climbed a nearby knoll to look over the marsh. I could only see one phalarope. In a little while this adult flew back to the pond. I glassed the pond and now could see two adults there. Back I went to the pond. A couple of swallows flew high overhead. No nestlings were calling from the boxes. Apparently all had fledged.
The phalaropes ignored me, this time. They stayed near the far shore, bathing and preening. I got into the paddleboat, taking Lyra and I out into the pond. The phalaropes came up to the boat to have a look at us, but soon lost interest and went back to the shoreline, hunting for food. No sign at all of the chick, or the third adult.
Back home, I did some research on phalaropes and found some surprises. At seven inches in length and with a fifteen- inch wingspan, it weighs in at only one-point five ounces. (No wonder that lily pad had barely moved when the phalarope climbed aboard!) I knew that all three species of phalaropes do a “role reversal”; that is, the females are larger and more brightly-colored than the males, and the males sit on the eggs, hatch and watch over the chicks. The females, meanwhile, will go off and mate with other males.
I didn’t know that if the male loses his brood to predation, he will re-pair with his original mate, or- if that is not possible- he’ll take a new mate. Once it becomes too late in the season to start new nests, the females all begin their southward migration, leaving the males to incubate the eggs and look after the young. The clutch size is usually four, but can be fewer. The chicks mainly feed themselves and are able to fly within twenty days of hatching.
I’ve watched Red-necked Phalaropes feeding and have seen them swimming in tight, rapid circles, forming a small whirlpool. They then dip their sharp beak into the center of this vortex, plucking out small insects or crustaceans, brought up by the swirling water.
Except during nesting season, phalaropes are found out on the open ocean, usually where converging currents produce up welling. They also flock in floating weed beds out at sea, hunting food, especially in tropical waters. During migration, some flocks stop over on the open waters at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy in eastern Canada, taking advantage of food stirred up by tidal action.
Phalaropes nest throughout Alaska, northern Canada and across northern Eurasia, populating freshwater tundra and taiga ponds. It was mentioned in my research that phalaropes rarely come into contact with humans and “can be unusually tame”. I have noted that whenever I have come upon phalaropes in my birding adventures, they have been markedly unafraid of my presence. I have watched them whirling in circles in water just a few feet away from me, ignoring me while I snapped photos or made videos. With all their charming attributes, it’s easy to have the phalarope in the “favorite birds” category in my birding files.