Wilson's Phalarope

Wilson's Phalarope
Credit: K. Penner

Phalaropes are sandpipers that forage on the water’s surface while swimming, often spinning in one spot.

Fall shorebird migration starts around the 4th of July and continues into September. Shorebirds like Wilson’s phalarope are known for concentrating in large groups during migration. Gray and white like most other shorebirds in the fall, it is the largest and most likely phalarope species to be seen in the continental U.S.

Phalaropes are a unique group of birds: females are larger and more colorful than males, which are smaller and duller in coloration. Viewing spectacles (numbering 500,000 or more) are somewhat restricted to hypersaline lakes of the west, such as Great Salt Lake, Utah, a designated Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve. Bear River National Wildlife Refuge in the northwest corner of this lake, is a good place to observe this species.

Watch for birds spinning in a circle (up to 60 rotations/minute) in shallow water, thought to stir up food lodged in the mud. The name “phalarope” means coot-foot in Greek; these birds have partially webbed goes that enable them to spin on water surfaces, creating whirlpools that gather aquatic prey for easy picking. Brine shrimp and brine flies are the primary aquatic invertebrates that these phalaropes eat. Body fat powers these birds on a 56-hour flight from the Pacific Ocean to wintering areas in the high altitude lakes in the Andean Mountains of South America.

Wilson’s Phalarope Data

  • Size and Color - female about 9.5 inches, male smaller, weight about two ounces with a wingspan about 17 inches. Females may weight 40 percent more than males. Fall coloring is gray and white. Spring female has black and chestnut neck stripes and a white head. Longer bill than other phalaropes. Juveniles are scaly brown.
  • Range – In the summer, phalaropes are common in the upper northwest U.S. Range from Canada to South America during migration.
  • Diet – aquatic invertebrates such as brine shrimp and flies
  • U.S. Habitat – prairie marshes, western lakes

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