Three days ago Leonard and I hiked Elkins #2 Loop at Ash Creek Wildlife Area near Lookout CA (Modoc County). I was searching for American pillwort plants, which I was certain I had seen along that trail. My memory failed me because there were no pillworts to be found. Even if we do not complete our “quest”, Leonard and I always find something new or of interest on our saunters.
One of the pond/marshy areas was a gold mine of avian species. Standing at one spot Leonard and I counted over ten species in a few minutes – sora, white-faced ibis, great egret, killdeer, willet, American bittern, cinnamon teal, American avocet, black-necked stilt and Wilson’s snipe. A Wilson’s phalarope (Phalaropus tricolor) was my favorite find of the day.
Wilson’s phalaropes are small shorebirds that breed in marshy areas of western North America and around the Great Lakes. They winter in South America, mainly in the high alkaline lakes of the Andes. Unlike other shorebirds, Wilson’s phalaropes molt at resting stops along their migratory path, rather than at their breeding grounds. Large flocks of Wilson’s phalaropes stage and molt at saline lakes such as the Great Salt Lake in Utah and Mono Lake in California.
Another manner in which Wilson’s phalaropes differ from many other birds is in a “reversal of roles”. The female of this species displays the brighter, more colorful plumage. She also does the courting and defends against other males. Once her eggs are laid, the female Wilson’s phalarope deserts the male and looks for other partners with whom she can mate. The male is left to incubate the eggs and care for the chicks.
Wilson’s phalaropes have long, partially-lobed, black feet, long, black, almost needle-like bills, slender necks and sharply pointed wings. A breeding female has a bold black and a rufous stripe on her face and neck, a white throat, a warm orange breast, whitish or pale grey crown and blue-grey back. The breeding male is duller than the female and lacks the black neck stripe. Non-breeding Wilson’s phalaropes are pale grey above, white below and lack the colorful facial markings.
Wilson’s phalaropes will swim in deeper water than many other shorebirds. Their diet is composed of small aquatic invertebrates. Often when feeding these phalaropes will spin like a top creating a whirlpool that lifts larvae, crustaceans and other invertebrates to the surface. In addition to the “whirlpool” method of feeding, Wilson’s phalaropes chase prey on the surface of the water, peck in the mud for food and stand stationary stabbing at passing prey. They will also feed on land.
Even though the American pillwort eluded us, I finally did get some Wilson’s phalarope photographs.