A Most Seaworthy Shorebird Makes Landfall

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Red Phalaropes are among the daintiest and most eccentric of shorebirds. Wintering in southern oceans from Cape Horn to the Cape of Good Hope, they're apt to dabble on the water's surface like ducks, often tens of miles offshore. Powerful winter storms occasionally push these phalaropes shoreward—as was the case with these two in Newport, OR—where they'll take refuge in calmer waters.

Like the closely related Red-necked Phalarope, this Arctic-nesting bird spends the majority of its time on the open ocean, feeding on plankton at upwellings and other convergences for up to nine months at a stretch. (The third phalarope species, Wilson's, is more of a landlubber, inhabiting North America's interior.) Phalaropes typically forage while afloat, frenetically kicking their short legs and lobed toes to bring particles to the surface—a technique that incidentally causes the birds to spin like tops. Red Phalaropes, being the most pelagic of phalarope species, have even been observed alighting on the backs of sleeping whales, resting for a spell while picking off sea lice and other parasites.

As with other phalaropes, this species is sexually dimorphic but in an unexpected way: females are larger and more brightly plumaged than males; females compete heatedly for mates; and males do all the nest-building and brooding. Welcome to the topsy-turvy life of phalaropes, odd ducks of the shorebird world.