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Red Phalarope

These small birds migrate to breed on the coasts of northern parts of North America, Greenland, and Siberia.

Aside from about a month of nesting on land, the Red Phalarope spends the rest of the year at sea. It is more buoyant than most shorebirds, and is therefore better able to handle rough seas. Its remote, far northern breeding grounds have kept studies of the Red Phalarope’s breeding ecology to a minimum.

As in other phalaropes, but differing from most birds, the male Red Phalarope does all of the incubating of eggs and care of the young. In years when the lemming population is low but foxes are common, many eggs and young birds may be eaten by foxes, which usually hunt lemmings.


Description of the Red Phalarope


The Red Phalarope is a small shorebird with a relatively short, stout bill. The plumage varies by gender and season, with females being brightly colored and males somewhat more subdued.

Breeding males have a white eye patch, reddish neck and underparts, dark brownish-black upperparts with buffy stripes, and a black-tipped, yellowish bill.  Length: 8 in.  Wingspan: 17 in.


Breeding females are similar in pattern to males, but are much more boldly colored.

Seasonal change in appearance

Winter birds are pale grayish above and white below, with mostly dark bills and a black eye patch.

Red Phalarope

Photograph © Greg Lavaty.


Juveniles have dark upperparts feathers widely edged with buff.


Red Phalaropes inhabit ocean and tundra.


Insects, mollusks, and crustaceans.


Red Phalaropes forage by swimming, often spinning rapidly in a circle to stir up prey. On the breeding grounds, they also forage while walking.


Red Phalaropes breed in Canada and Alaska. They winter at sea, south to South America. They can be seen in migration across much of the U.S., though they are rare inland. The population is difficult to monitor, but appears to be declining.

More information:

Bent Life History

Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the Red Phalarope.


Fun Facts

Male Red Phalaropes incubate the eggs and care for the young, and females may mate with more than one male.

Unlike most other shorebirds, phalaropes have lobed toes.


The flight call is a high “pik”.


Similar Species

Wilson’s Phalarope
Wilson’s Phalaropes have longer, thinner bills.

Red-necked Phalarope
Red-necked Phalaropes also have thinner bills.


The nest is a depression lined with grass, moss, and lichens and is placed near water.

Number: Usually 4.
Color: Buffy with darker markings.

Incubation and fledging
– The young hatch at about 18-20 days.
– Young leave the nest shortly after hatching, though associating with the adult male for some time.


Bent Life History of the Red Phalarope


The female red phalarope in her full nuptial plumage is, to my mind, the handsomest, certainly the most richly colored, of the three known species of phalaropes. The species is cosmopolitan, with a circumpolar breeding range; it is apparently homogeneous throughout its wide range except for a local race, breeding in Spitsbergen, which has been separated and named Phalaropus fulicarius sourdaini Iredale; this race is said to have paler edgings on the back, scapulars, and tertials. The species is commonly known abroad as the grey phalarope, an appropriate name for the bird in its winter plumage, in which it is most often seen.

It is less often seen in the United States than the other two species; its summer home is so far north that it is beyond the reach of most of us; and at other seasons it is much more pelagic than the other species, migrating and apparently spending the winter far out on the open sea, often a hundred miles or more from land. It seldom comes ashore on the mainland except when driven in by thick weather or a severe storm. Hence it is an apparently rare bird to most of us. But in its arctic summer home it is exceedingly abundant. Alfred M. Bailey (1925) says that “this was the most abundant of the shore birds at Wales, as at Wainwright, Alaska. As a person walks over the tundra there is a continual string of those handsome birds rising from the grass.” Again he writes:

At Whalen, near East Cape, Siberia, we saw thousands of these beautiful little fellows on July 11. The day was very disagreeable, with a strong wind off the ice and a drizzling rain. From the ship we could see waves of birds rising some distance off in such dense flocks that individuals could not be distinguished; the mass looked like a long, thin cloud swirling before the wind; one end of the line rose high in the air, while the other end swerved nearer to the water. They swung about with the erratic movements and wavelike flight so characteristic of black skimmers, now high in the air, again low over the water. As we worked along the shore, thousands that were feeding close along the beach rose and flew across the sand spit in front of us. There was a continual stream of them drifting by, like so much sand before a strong wind. They were, at this time, beginning to molt their breeding plumage.

Spring: The migrations of the red phalarope are mainly at sea, usually far out from land. During the month of May enormous flocks may be seen on the ocean off the coasts of New England, but it is only during stress of weather that they are driven inshore. I can well remember a big storm, on May 21, 1892, which brought a large flight of these birds into Cape Cod Bay; Nat Gould killed a large number that day on Monomoy Island and I shot one at Plymouth Beach; others were taken at Provincetown. In pleasant weather these birds are well at home on the heaving bosom of the ocean, flying about in flocks, twisting, turning, and wheeling like flocks of sandpipers, or resting or feeding on the drifting rafts of seaweeds. On the Pacific coast these birds are even more abundant, if one goes far enough offshore to see them during April and May. They often congregate in considerable numbers about the Farallon Islands. W. Leon Dawson (1923) has drawn a graphic picture of them there, as follows:

Here in late spring thousands of these birds ride at anchor In the lee of the main Island, along with other thousands of the other northern species, Lobipes lobatus. Of these some few scores are driven ashore by hunger and seek their sustenance in brackish pools, or else battle with the breakers In the little “bight” of the rocky lee shore. The date is May 23, and the company under survey numbers a few brilliant red birds In high plumage among the scores in unchanged gray, together with others exhibiting every Intermediate gradation. When to this variety is added a similar diversity among the northerns, which mingle indiscriminately with them, you have a motley company: no two birds alike. Ho! but these are agile surfmen! Never, save in the case of the wandering tattler and the American dipper, have I seen such absolute disregard of danger and such instant adjustment to watery circumstance. Here are 30 of these phalaropes “fine mixed,” threading a narrow passage in the reefs where danger threatens In the minutest fraction of a second. Crash! comes a comber. Our little world Is obliterated in foam. Sea anemones and rock oysters sputter and choke, and there is a fine fury of readjustment. But the phalaropes rise automatically, clear the crest of the crasher, and are down again, preening their feathers or snatching dainties with the utmost unconcern. Now a bird is left stranded on a reef, or now he Is whisked and whirled a dozen feet away. All right, if he likes It; but If not, he is back again, automatically, at the old rendezvous. Life goes on right merrily In spite of these shocking interruptions. Food getting is the main business, and this Is pursued with extraordinary ardor. The bird’s tiny feet kick the water violently, and there Is the tiniest compensatory bob for every stroke, so that their little bodies seem all a tremble. There seems to be no difference of opinion between the two species, but there is time for a good deal of amatory play between the sexes of the reds. It is always the bright-colored female who makes the advances, for the wanton phalaropes have revised nature’s order, and the modest male either seeks escape by flight, or else defends himself with determined dabs. Here Is the authentic lady for whom Shakespeare’s “pilgrim” sighed.

Of their arrival on their breeding grounds in northern Alaska, E. IV. Nelson (1887) writes:

It is much more gregarious than its relative, and for a week or two after its first arrival 50 or more flock together. These flocks were very numerous the 1st of June, 1879, at the Yukon mouth, where I had an excellent opportunity to observe them. In the morning the birds which were paired could be found scattered here and there, by twos, over the slightly flooded grassy flats. At times these pairs would rise and fly a short distance, the female, easily known by her bright colors and larger size, in advance, and uttering now and then a low and musical “clink, clink,” sounding very much like the noise made by lightly tapping together two small bars of steel. When disturbed these notes were repeated oftener and became harder and louder. A little later In the day, as their hunger became satisfied, they began to unite Into parties until 15 or 20 birds would rise and pursue an erratic course over the fiat. As they passed swiftly along stray Individuals and pairs might be seen to spring up and join the flock. Other flocks would rise and the smaller coalesce with the larger until from two hundred to three or even four hundred birds were gathered in a single flock. As the size of the flock increased its movements became more and more irregular. At one moment they would glide straight along the ground, then change to a wayward flight, back and forth, twisting about with such rapidity that it was difficult to follow them with the eye. Suddenly their course would change, and the compact flock, as if animated by a single impulse, would rise high over head, arid, after a series of graceful and swift evolutions, come sweeping down with a loud, rushing sound to resume their playful course near the ground. During all their motions the entire flock moves in such unison that Ihe alternate flashing of the underside of their wings and the dark color of the hack, like the play of light and shade, makes a beautiful spectacle. When wearied of their sport the flock disbands and the birds again resume their feeding.

Courtship: The well-known reversal of sexual characters in the l)halaropeS makes their courtship particularly interesting, as the large, handsome females press their ardent suits against the timid and dull-colored little males. A. L. V. Manniche (1910) has given us the best account of it, as follows:

June 19, 1907, early in the morning, I had the pleasure of watching for hours the actions of a loving couple of phalaropes on the beach of a pool surrounded by large sedge tufts, covered with long, withered grass. This act I found very funny, peculiar, and charming. When the male had been eagerly searching for food for some 20 minutes, often standing on his head in the water, like a duck, to fish or pick up something from the bottom, he would lie down on a tuft, stretching out his one leg and his one wing as if he would fully enjoy the rest after his exertions. The female for some moments was lying quietly and mutely in the middle of the pool; suddenly she began with increasing rapidity to whirl around on the surface of the water, always In the same little circle, the diameter of which was some 10 centImeters. As the male seemed to pay no attention to her alluring movements, she flew rapidly up to him: producing as she left the water a peculiar whirling sound with her wings and uttering short angry cries: pushed him with her bill, and then she returned to the water and took up her swimming dance. Now the male came out to her, and the two birds whirled around for some moments equally eager and with increasing rapidity. Uttering a short call, the female again flew to a tuft surrounded by water and waited some seconds in vain for the male; again she flew to the water to induce him with eager pushes and thumps to accompany her. They again whirled violently around, whereafter she, uttering a strong, alluring sound, flew back to the tuft, this time accompanied by the male: and the pairing immediately took place. In the matrimony of the grey phainrope the female only decides. She exceeds the male in size and brilliancy of pluiaage and has the decisive power in all family affairs. If she wants to shift her place of residence she flies up swift as an arrow with a commanding cry: which may be expressed as ‘pittss “: and if the male does not follow her at once she will immediately return and give him a severe punishment, which never fails to have the desired effect. It is a wellknown fact that she completely ignores her eggs and young ones.

Nesting: The same author describes the nesting habits of this species, in northeast Greenland, as follows:

It is peculiar, that the male has well-marked breeding spots before the breeding begins and certainly before the female has laid her first egg; but this fact has been proved by several solid examinatIons. June 26, 1907, I observed on the beach of the Iliergandeso In the Stormkap district, that the nest building was executed by the male. He was busy in building the nest on a low bank covered with short grass, while she paid no attention to his labor, but swam around the beach searching food. The male shaped a nest hollow by turning round his hody against the ground on the place selected, having first by aid of the feet scraped axvay and trampled down the longest and most troublesome straws. He diligently used feet and bill at the same time to arrange the shorter fine straws, which are carefully bent into the nest hollow and form the lining of this. The nest was much smaller than that of Triage alpine and contained one egg the next day. Along the beaches of a smaller lake not far from the ship’s harbor I saw, June 30, three solitary swimming males, at least one of which showed signs of having a nest. I soon found this close to the place of residence of Ihe male in question. The nest contained four fresh eggs and was built in exactly the same way as the before-mentioned nest. The male proved so far from being shy, that he could be driven to his nest and merely be caught by hand; having laid himself upon the nest he was still more fearless.

A breeding phalarope will lie motionless with his head pressed deep down against his back. lie is almost fully covered by straws, which surround the nest, as he with the bill bends these over himself, besides he Is so similar to the surroundings that no human eye is able to distinguish him from these, if the spot is not known beforehand.

July 9, 1907, 1 again found a phalaropes nest by the Biergandeso; it contained fonr fresh eggs and was built a little differently from the two beforementioned nests. These were found close to a lake on low banks covered with short grass, but thIs one was built on a tuft covered with long, withered grass, situated some 10 meters from the real lake, but surrounded by shallow water, that came from a little river running out from the lake and irrigating all the tufts, one of which contained the nest. This bird also kept very close on the nest, and did not leave it before I parted the long grass with my foot. When frightened up from the nest the bird for a short while lay screaming and flapping on the water not far from me; thereupon he flew away, silently and rapidly, to land on the opposite side of the lake. Having been absent for some five minutes he returned just as rapitily, flew a good way to the other side of the nest, sat down, and kept quiet for a couple of minutes, whereafter he again flew up and took the earth some 20 meters from the nest, which he then rapidly approached walking and swimming hidden by aquatic plants and tufts. All this was done In order to mislead me, who was lying some 15 meters from the nest without any shelter and therefore seen by the bird nil the while.

C. W. G. Eifrig (1905) found the red phalarope breeding very commonly around Cape Fullerton and Southampton Island, Hudson Bay. “They nest around fresh water ponds, laying their eggs, with out ncsting material, in depressions in the sand or moss, often in lichens.” John Murdoch (1885), on the other hand, says, at Point Barrow, Alaska, that: The nest is always in the grass, never in the black or mossy portions of the tundra, and usually in a pretty wet situation, though a nest was occasionally found high and dry, in a place where the nest of the pectoral sandpiper would be looked for. A favorite nesting site was a narrow grassy isthmus between two of the shallow ponds. The nest is a very slight affair of dried grass and always well concealed.

In the Kotzebue Sound region Joseph Grinnell (1900) found three nests, of which he says:
The nests were all on higher ground and at a distance of 100 yards or more from the lagoons where the birds usually congregated for feeding and social purposes. The three nests agreed la situation, being rather deep depressions sunk Into the tops of mossy hummocks. There was a thin lining of dry grasses, and in one case the drooping blades from an adjoining dumb of grass partially concealed the nest from view from above.

Miss Maud D. Haviland (1915) relates her experience with the nesting habits of this species, at the mouth of the Yenesei River, Siberia, as follows:
I found the first nest on Goichika Island early in July. My attention was called to it by the male bird, which flew round uneasily. Even when the nesting ground is invaded, this lhalarope is very quiet and not very demonstrative. He flits round the intruder with a peculiar silent flight, rather like a big red moth, while he utters his chirruping alarm note: “zhit zkit.” This call is shriller than that of Pheiaropu.s lobetas, and quite recognizable where the two species breed side by side. I sat down on a log of driftwood, and In about half ax’ hour was able to flush the bird from four fresh eggs. This nest, however, was not placed very well for photography, for about 50 yards away was a turf hut, which a Russian family had just taken possession of for the summer, and I dared not leave the hiding tent or apparatus near the spot. On the following day I was more fortunate, and found a nest which was also on the island but about half a verst away. It was in rather a dryer situation than the last, but like all the nests of this species that I saw, the eggs lay on quite a substantial platform of dead grass. In other cases the sites were so wet that the bird must have been sitting actually in water: and the photographer would have had to do likewise! In the photograph, the grass has been parted in order to show the eggs, but before this was done they were screened as carefully as the eggs of a redshank or reeve.

I pitched the tent at once, and went in to hide. The male phalarope stood on a tussock about 20 yards away and watched attentively, I should not thus have tackled the nest of any other wader, but I relied upon the confidence and simplicity of the phalarope, and I did not rely upon them in vain. In about 20 minutes I caught sight of the bird creeping round the tent, and a few minutes later ho settled down upon the eggs. In this, my first glimpse of a grey phalarope at close quarters, two points struck me forcibly. One was the apparent extraordinary length of the bird. The single pair of legs in the middle seemed quite insufficient to support so long a body, and with his quaint perky gait, it seemed as if the hird swayed to and fro upon ceo springs as he walked. The other was the peculiar harmony of the color of the mantle with the grass around, bleached or blackened by snow and thaw. The long, bladelike form of the secondary feathers, and the buff longitudinal shoulder bands seemed to emphasize the scheme until the bird was almost indistinguishable from his surroundings.

Herbert W. Brandt in his manuscript notes says:
The nest of the red phalarope is built either on dry ground or over shallow grass-grown water and is well concealed. Leading away from it usually are one or more runways which are eliher tunneled or open. The nest is fragile and very loosely made. The interior is moulded Into a cup shape and the structure is made of grasses and often lined with moss stems, small leaves of the dwarf birch, cranberry, and other small, crisp leaves found there. Frequently, however, a simple depression in the moss or grass suffices to serve for the nursery. The range of measurements of 18 nests is: Height 3 to 5 inches; inside diameter 2? to 3 inches; depth of cavity, 21/2 to 3 Inches; but the nest is sometimes built up higher and is more substantial if placed directly over water. In fact, this little coot-footed bird sometimes builds a miniature cootlike iiest. The male alone was noted building the nest, and he usually incubates, bat on two occasions the female was observed on the eggs. The incubating bird is not a close sitter and departs from the nest long before the intruder arrives. In that jaeger-haunted land when the male phalarope returns to the nest he weaves so stealthily through the grass that it is almost impossible to foltow his devious course so that two or three rapid charges are necessary by the watcher toward the supposed location of the nest before the incubating bird can finally be forced to rise directly from its eggs.

Eggs: The red phalarope ordinarily lays four eggs, though three sometimes constitute a full set, and as many as six have been found in a nest, probably laid by two birds. They vary in shape from ovate pyriform to stibpyriform and have a slight gloss. The prevailing ground colors range froln “pale olive buff” to “dark olive buff”; in the darker sets they vary from “ecru olive ” to “Isabella color”; in a few sets there is a greenish tinge approaching “light brownish olive “. The markings are bold, sharply defined and irregular in shape; they are most numerous and often confluent at the larger end; but some eggs are finely speckled over the entire surface. The prevailing colors of the markings are dark browns, from “warm sepia” or “Vandyke brown” to “bone brown” or “clove brown.” Some eggs are marked with lighter or brighter browns, “hazel,” “russet,” or even “tawny.” The drab under markings are hardly noticeable. The measurements of 148 eggs in the United States National Museum average 31.5 by 22 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 35 by 22, 32 by 23 and 27.5 by 20.5 millimeters.

Young: Authorities differ as to the period of incubation, which does not seem to have been definitely determined by anyone. Mr. Gonover writes to me that “a nest located June 10, with three eggs, hatched on June 29.” Incubation is performed almost wholly by the male, but Mr. Brandt (mss.) says: “The female, however, is, of course, the dominant member of the household, but she occasionally shares the cares of incubation, as I proved by collecting one from the nest; while later in the year I was successful in photographing a mother with a single chick. Perhaps it was a favorite child which she was taking for a walk while the father was mothering the rest of the family.” Most observers agree that the male assumes full care of the young also; but Miss Haviland (1915) says: “It seems as if both male and female unite to care for the young, and when the breeding ground is approached they fly around and call anxiously.” Probably the gaily dressed female is a poor mother at best and prefers to join the large flocks of her sex on the tundra pools.

The downy young red phalarope is the handsomest of its group, darker and more richly colored, as well as larger than the young northern phalarope. The upper parts show various shades of deep, warm brownish buff, darkest, “Sudan brown,” on the crown, paling to “raw sienna,” on the sides of the head, occiput, neck, thighs, and rump, and to “yellow ocher” on the rest of the upper parts; these colors shade off into “antimony yellow” or “warm buff” on the throat and breast and to buffy white on the belly; the down of the upper parts is tipped with black, except on the yellow ocher parts, and is basally dusky. It is boldly marked above with clear, velvety black; there is a large black patch back of the central crown patch of brown and a diminishing black stripe on each side of it; a narrow black stripe runs from the hill, over the eye, to the auriculars; another runs across the hind neck; a broad, but more or less broken and irregular, black stripe extends down the center of the back and a similar stripe down each side of it; there is also a large well-defined black patch on each side of the rump, above the thigh.

In fresh juvenal plumage, in August, the feathers of the crown, mantle, and scapulars are black, broadly edged with “ochraceous tawny”; the tertials, median wing coverts, upper tail coverts, and tail feathers are narrowly edged with paler shades of buff; the lesser wing coverts are narrowly edged with white; the forehead, lores, neck all around, upper breast, and flanks are suffused with grayish brown, varying from “fawn color” or “wood brown,” on the throat, neck, and breast, to “vinaceous buff” on the head and flanks; the rest of the under parts are pure white. The sexes are alike in juvenal and winter plumages.
The tawny edgings of the upper plumage soon fade and wear away before the postjuvenal molt begins during August. I have seen birds in full juvenal plumage as late as September 15; the molt is usually not completed until late in October, but I have seen it well advanced by the middle of August. This molt includes nearly a]] of the contour plumage, but not the wings and tail, so that firstwinter birds can be distinguished from adults by the juvenal wing coverts and tail.

The first prenuptial molt occurs mainly in April and May; it is sometimes completed by the last week in May, but more often not until early June; I have seen the full first-winter plumage retained until May 21. This molt involves the entire contour plumage, some wing coverts, and the tail; so that young birds in first nuptial plumage closely resemble adults and can be distinguished only by the presence of some old juvenal wing coverts. The sexes are quite unlike in this plumage and are probably ready to breed. Certain females, in which the black crown and white cheek patches are obscured with buff and rufous tints, but are otherwise in full plumage, are perhaps young birds.

At the following molt, the first postnuptial, the adult winter plumage is acquired, characterized by the bluish-gray mantle and the white under parts. This molt is complete; it begins in July and is sometimes completed in August. but more often it is prolonged into September or later. Adults have a partial molt in the spring, from March to May, involving the contour feathers, the tail, some of the tertials, and some of the wing coverts; the remiges are not molted, and some of the old scapulars are retained. The adult postnuptial molt, from July to December, is complete.

 During the month or so that they are on their northern breeding grounds the red phalaropes are shore birds, feeding in the tundra pools or along the shores, but during the rest of the year they are essentially sea birds, feeding on or about the floating masses of kelp or seaweeds, or following the whales or schools of large fish; hence they are aptly called “sea geese,” “whale birds,” or “bowhead birds.” They occasionally come in to brackish pools near the shore or rarely are seen on the sandy beaches or mud flats feeding with other shore birds. Outlying rocky islands are often favorite feeding places. Ludwig Kumlien (1879) writes:

Whalemen always watch these birds while thcy are wheeling around high In the air in graceful and rapid circles, for they know that as soon as they sight a whale blowing they start for him, and from their elevated position they can, of course, discern one at a much greater distance than the men in the boat. I doubt If It be altogether the marine animals brought to the surface hy the whale that they are after, for If the whale remains above the surface any length of time they always settle on his back and hunt parasites. One specimen was brought me by an Eskimo that he had killed on the back of an Orca (fladiator; the esophagus was fairly crammed with Laernodi~ocUan cruttacean.s, still alive, although the bird had been killed some hours; they looked to me like Capretla phasma and Cyamnus ceti. According to the Eskimo Who killed It, the birds were picking something from the whale’s back. I have often seen them dart down among a school of lJelphinepte’roa8 leuca,s and follow them as far as I could see. On one occasion a pair suddenly alighted astern of my boat and were not 3 feet from me at times; they followed directly in the wake of the boat, and seemed so intent on pickng up food that they paid no attention whatever to us. They had probably mistaken the boat for a whale.

In northeastern Greenland, Manniche (1910) saw them hunt flying insects on land; he also says:
Some 20 analyses of stomachs proved that the phalaropes in the breeding season chiefly feed on small insects, principally gnats and larvae of these. The esophagus and stomachs of several birds killed were filled with larvae of gnats, which in vast multitudes live In the fresh-water pends. In a few stomachs I also found fine indeterminable remnants of plants (Algae?).

W. Leon Dawson (1923) describes their feeding habits at the Farallones, as follows:
Three red phalaropes, all female I take it, although none of them In highest plumage, and one northern, also a female, just under “high,” are pasturing at my feet in a brackish pool some 20 feet long, 10 feet wide, and 2 feet deep. The waters of the pool teem with a minute reddish crustacean (?) shaped like’ an ant, less than a thirty-second of an Inch in length and Incredibly nimble. The insects progress by leaps, and are visible only at the aloment of arrival. Yet these birds gobble them up one at a time with unerring accuracy and with a rapidity which Is nothing short of marvelous. The reds work habitually at the r~e of five dabs per second, I. c., 300 a minute, while the northern, with a longer beak and a much daintier motion, works only half as fast.

The following observation was made on a California beach by Roland C. Ross (1922):
Kelp flies seemed to satisfy its sporting instincts and hunger, and the bird stalked them slowly and pointedly one by one. With bill and neck outstretched and lowered In line with a fly on the sand, a slow advance was made until with a pounce the hunt closed. If the fly escaped, the phalarope sometimes ran after it, bill out. Another pose Interested me. Oil finding a kelp mass decayIng and drawing flies, the phalarope approached closely and so low that his breast touched the ground, but the rear of the bIrd was high up. At times he would remain with breast down and pick at the flies much as a dusting fowl picks up a stray grain. Mr. L. E. Wyman reported similar “breast to ground” actions of two phalaropes he saw feeding by a kelp mass on the beach.

Alexander Wetmore (1925), in his report on the food of the red phalarope, analyzed the contents of 36 stomachs, mainly from the Pribilof Islands, with some from New York and Maine; they were collected from May to November, but mainly in August. Crustaceans made up 33.5 per cent of the food; beetles amounted to 27.3 per cent; flies formed 22.7 per cent; and 6.8 per cent consisted of tiny fishes, mostly sculpins. The food of this species therefore shows it to be harmless or neutral.

Behavior: Phalaropes are active, lively birds in all their movements and they seem to be constantly on the move. They are all rapid fliers and this species is decidedly the swiftest on the wing of all three. As the restless flocks move about over the water,’ their aerial evolutions are well worth watching. Lucien M. Turner, in his Labrador notes, writes that he has seen them “ascend to a great height in increasing circles, darting in and out among each other and making a peculiar twitter as they ascend. When some suitable locality is discerned these birds descend almost perpendicularly and drop on the water as softly as a feather.” They are so much like sandpipers in appearance and in manner of flight that one is always surprised to see them alight on the water.

Perhaps even more surprising than their peculiar marital relations are their aquatic habits. Their semipaitnated and lobed toes are well adapted for swimming and the thick, compact plumage of their under parts protects them and buoys them up on the water. They float as lightly as corks, or as freshly fallen autumn leaves on a woodland pool, swimming swiftly and whirling rapidly, undisturbed by rushing currents or by foaming breakers. William Brewster (1925) has well described the behavior of a red phalarope on an inland stream at Umbagog Lake, Me.; he writes:

I strolled across a suspension footbridge that spans Bear River here, a shallow stream rippling over a rocky bed scarce 1O feet in width, beneath overhanging yellow birches and other deciduous trees. Returning a few minutes later I had reached the middle of the bridge when a grayish bird started dl. reetly under it and flew off down stream for a few rods, skimming close to the water and uttering a sharp whit, whit, which reminded me of the call of a spotted sandpiper concerned for the safety of Its young. Almost at the first glance I recognized the bird as a red phalarope whose presence in such a place surprised me greatly, of course. Alighting, again, In the middle of the river it floated buoyantly and stemmed the swift current with apparent ease, although avoiding such exertion, whenever possible, by taking advantage of backwardflowing eddies. Presently it began working around the bases of some large boulders where it seemed to be obtaining abundant food by pecking rapidly and incessantly at their rough flanks, wetted by lapping waves. It also fed on the surface of the swirling eddies, paddling about very rapidly and in devious courses. It was most interesting to see a bird whose characteristic haunts, at least in autumn and winter, are boundless stretches of wind-swept ocean, thus disporting itself in a brawling mountain stream overarched by trees. Even a water ousel could not have appeared more perfectly at home there. Like most phalaropes this one was tame and confiding, but whenever I approached within 20 or 25 feet, it would rise and fly on a few yards, giving the whit call.

On land their movements are exceedingly rapid and graceful, though somewhat erratic; they run about excitedly with all the restless activity of sandpipers, nodding their heads with a pretty, dovelike motion. At such times they are remarkably tame, unsuspicious, and gentle birds; as they do not habitually come in contact with human beings, they are unafraid.

Voice: The vocal performances of the red phalarope are not elaborate. As quoted above, Doctor Nelson (1S87) describes its note as “a low and musical clink, clink, sounding very much like the noise made by lightly tapping together two small bars of steel.” Mr. Brewster (1925) refers to the note as “an emphatic zip, zip, closely resembling that of Bonaparte’s sandpiper . . . but louder and mellower.” Again he says: “Once they rose and flew about the pond precisely like small sandpipers, one of them uttering a peeplike tweet just as it left the water.” Charles W. Townsend (1920) saw one which “emitted a whistle which was clear and pleasant at times, and again sharp and grating; at times the note could be expressed as a creak.”

Field marks: In its nuptial plumage the red phalarope can be easily recognized by its brilliant colors; the male is smaller, his colors are duller, and his breast is mixed with white. In its winter plumage, in which we usually see it, it is likely to be confused with the northern phalarope or the sanderling. It is larger than the former, more stockily built and has a shorter, thicker bill, which is yellowish at the base. From the sanderling it can be distinguished by the gray markings on the head and neck, which are mainly white in winter sanderlings, by the darker gray of the back and by the yellow at the base of the bill. Phalaropes are usually tame enough to allow close study of these details. John T. Nichols suggests to me the following additional field characters:

This phalarope holds its gray plumage well Into the spring and adults quickly resume same when they go to sea in late summer. Around the first of August flocks offshore are in gray and white “winter” plumage, but a few birds have a peculiar pink tone appreciable on the underparts at fair range, apt to be strongest posteriorly, and which is diagnostic. It is caused by scattered old red feathers overlaid by the delicate tips of new white ones. The white wing stripe is somewhat broader in this than in the northern phalarope and in gray plumage the upper parts are of so pale a tone that the wing pattern appears faint, something as it does in the piping plover. What seems to be a late summer plumage of birds of the year, on the other hand, is less white than the corresponding one of the northern. As the bird sits on the water the sides of Its neck, breast, and sides appear brownish (not red or pink), the only touch of whitish it shows Is on the flanks. At close range a curved phalarope mark behind the eye is just indicated, corresponding to the bold contrasting mark in the northern.

Enemies: Phalaropes are not considered game birds, as they are too small and too seldom seen in large numbers to warrant pursuing them; so man should not be counted among their enemies. On their Arctic breeding grounds they evidently have plenty of avian enemies, such as jaegers, gulls, and various gyrfalcons. Mr. Manniche (1910) writes:

The two phalaropes observed were evidently very much afraid of larger waders as for instance knots. Several times I saw them rush together In terror and lie motionless on the water with their heads pressed down to their hacks until the supposed danger: a passing knot: was past; then they continued their meal or love-making. The only enemy of the full-grown birds is the gyrfalcon (Falco gyrfalco), which wilt surprise and capture them when lying on the water. This I succeeded in observing one day in summer 1907; just as I was observing a male phalarope, which swam along the beach of a little clear pond hardly two paces from my feet, I suddenly heard a strong whistling In the air and saw an old falcon, that from a dizzy height shot like an arrow towards the surface of the water, caught the phalarope and again rapidly rose in the air carrying the bird In its talons. I saw the bird of prey descend and settle on the summit of a rock near the hay In order to eat Its prey. The method, with which the falcon carried out Its exploit, proved that several phalaropes before had the same fate. The gyrfalcon can certainly not catch a phalarope in flight.

Nature, however, sometimes takes her toll, as the following observation on the coast of California reported by L. W. ~vVelch (1922) will illustrate:
There was an unusual migration of red phalaropes (Phalcropu8 fuUcarius) this past fall. I saw about three hundred within an hour on the ponds of the Long Beach Salt Works. This was October 30. There was a great mortality among them this year. Dead birds were brought to the schools picked up by children in the streets or elsewhere. On the ponds mentioned above, dead birds were washed up in windrows. I could count 19 from one position and 21 from another. I counted 75 within half an hour. The birds had no shot holes in them, and showed no external evidences of having flown against wires, but all the birds examined were emaciated in the extreme.

Mr. Brandt in his manuscript notes writes:
I was told that the natives look upon the flesh of the red phalarope as the greatest delicacy, and it is considered the choicest food that can be placed before an honored guest. The little native boys have, as their most prized mark, this red-brown target. Inasmuch as this bird inhabits the small ponds just outside the villages, the young hunters have always easily stalked -game available. The children begin to hunt the red phalarope as soon as they are large enough to pull a how string. The chase is so alluring that the older boys in my employ could not resist the temptation whenever presented, to grab a bow and arrow from the youngsters, and stalk this little bird. The chase Is not one sided, however, as the phalarope Is as quick as a flash, and like cupid’s arrows, many shots fail to reach their mark.

Fall: The red phalaropes are the last of the waders to leave their Arctic breeding grounds, lingering until thc lakes and shores are closed with ice, often well into October. These loiterers are all young birds; t.he adults leave early and are sometimes seen off the coasts of the United States in July. F. S. Hersey and I collected one at Chatham, Mass., on July 4, 1921; this may have been a loiterer from the spring flight, but probably it was an early fall migrant.

The fall migration is usually well out at sea, often hundreds of miles from land. Kumlien (1879) writes:
These birds were met with at great distances from land. The first seen on our outward passage was on August 4, 1877, in latitude 410 N., longitude 680 W.; here large flocks were met with. As we proceeded northw~ird, their numbers Increased till we reached Grinnell Bay. Off the Amitliok Islands, on the Labrador coast, 200 miles from the nearest land, I saw very large flocks during a strong gale.

William Palmer (1890) met with it in great abundance between Cape Sable and Cape Cod on August 30.
Off the coast of California the flight begins in July or early August and continues through the fall; a few birds linger through the winter from Monterey southward. Throughout the great interior of North America migration records are scattering, hardly more than casuals. It is interesting, however, to note that Audubon (1840) saw his first birds of this species on the Ohio River near Louisville. Kentucky, where he killed 17 at one shot. I have an adult male in my collection which was shot on the Taunton River, near my home, on August 12, 1913.

: Our knowledge of the winter home of our American birds of this species is rather meager. They have been traced as far south as the Falkland Islands in the Atlantic Ocean and Juan Fernandez in the Pacific. Probably they are scattered over the warmer portions of both oceans, wherever they can find an abundant food supply.

A number of phalaropes, almost certainly of this species, were observed by Mr. Nichols in the Atlantic, off Cape Lookout, March 22, 1926. “They may winter here or, what is equally likely, arrive in spring to find the same feed which attracts the mackerel to the capes of the Carolinas in March or April.”

Aretas A. Saunders writes to me of a similar observation made by him off the coast of South Carolina on March 5,1908:
That day red phalaropes were abuiidant on tho water, though we were out. of sight of land. The sea was calm with a glossy surface, but a slight swell and flocks of from 10 to 30 birds rose from in front of the boat, at intervals all morning. They flew in compact flocks, low over the water, and alighted again when some distance away.


Range: Arctic regions of both Old and New Worlds; south in winter to South Africa, India, China, and southern South America.
Breeding range: In the Old World the red phalarope breeds on the Arctic coast from Iceland east to Nova Zembla, the Taimur Peninsula, and the islands and coast of Siberia to Bering Sea. The race, jourdaini, breeds in Spitsbergen, Iceland, and eastern Greenland.

In the Western Hemisphere the breeding range extends north to Alaska (probably St. Lawrence Island, Cape Prince of Wales, Cape Lowenstern, Point Barrow, and the Colville delta) ; Mackenzie (Rendezvous Lake and Franklin Bay) ; northern Franklin (Bay of Mercy, Winter Harbor, and Cape Liverpool) ; Grinnell Island (Fort Conger); and Greenland (Disco Bay, Godhavn, and probably Christianshaab). East to Greenland (Stormkap and probably Christianshaab); eastern Franklin (Exeter Sound, probably Nugumeute and Grinnell Bay); and Ungava (Port Burwell). South to Ungava (Port Burwell and probably Prince of Wales Sound); southern Franklin (Southampton Island and Cape Fullerton); and Alaska (Fort Egbert. and Hooper Bay). West to Alaska (Hooper Bay, St. Michael, and probably St. Lawrence Island).

Winter range: 
In the Eastern Hemisphere the winter range of the red phalarope seems to be principally at sea off the southern coast of Arabia and the west coast of Africa.

At this season in the Western Hemisphere it has been taken or observed north to Lower California (La Paz and Cape San Lucas) off the coast of Southern California (Point Pinos, Santa Cruz Islands, Anacapa Island, and San Diego); Alabama (Pickett Springs) ; Florida (Canaveral Light) ; and South Carolina (Mount Pleasant) ; and south to southern South America (Falkland Islands. Patagonia, and Chile).
Spring migration: Early dates of arrival in North America are: North Carolina, Cape Lookout, May 29; Delaware, seen off the coast. May 9; New Jersey, Cape May, May 3, and Ocean City, May 6; New York, Shelter Island, March 25, and Montauk Point, April 30; Connccticut, Bridgeport, May 30; Massachusetts, Gloucester, April 2; Maine. York Beach, May 8; Nova Scotia, Halifax, June 10; Quebec, Prince of Wales Sound, May 31; Washington, Destruction Island lighthouse, May 8; and Alaska, Cape Constantine, May 15, Kodiak Island, May 16. near Kotlik, May 28, Prince Frederick Sound, May 29, and Point Barrow, June 3.

Fall migration: Late dates of departure in the fall are: Alaska, Chatham Straits, September 9, Becharof Lake, October 6, Point Barrow, October 10, St. Michael, October 14, and Kodiak Island, November 4; Washington, Ilwaco, November 9, and Shoalwater Bay, November 24; California, Berkeley, October 27, Point Reyes, November 22, and Santa Barbara, November 30; Labrador, West Ste. Modiste, September 13; Prince Edward Island, North River, November 20; Nova Scotia, off the coast, September 16; Maine, Westbrook, September 26, Old Orchard, October 5, and Portland, October 16; Massachusetts, North Truro, October 15, near Nantucket, October 25, and Boston, December 30; Connecticut, Portland, October 21, and East Haven, November 24; New York, Oneida Lake, October 4, Brancliport, October 12, Orient Point, October 15, Cayuga Lake, October 18, and Montauk Point, November 27; Maryland, White’s Ferry, October 4; District of Columbia, Anacostia River, October 17; and Virginia, Blacksburg, September 21.
Casual records: The red phalarope is rare or irregular anywhere in the interior but it has nevertheless been detected over wide areas on several occasions. Among these records are: Vermont, Woodstock, November 10, 1916; Pennsylvania, Bucks County, December 15, 1918; Ohio, Painesville, November 9, 1923; Ontario, Ottawa, October 21, 1886, and Hamilton, November 17, 1882; Michigan, Monroe, October 24, 1888, and October 25, 1890; Indiana, Jasper County, April 10, 1885, and Terre Haute, October 23, 1889; Wisconsin, Lake Koshkonong, September 3, 1891, Delavan, October 11, 1902, and near Cedar Grove, October 8, 1921; Kentucky, near Louisville, latter part of October, 1808; South Dakota, one taken near Rapid City (date unknown); Kansas, near Lawrence, November 5, 1905; Wyoming, Laramie Plains, fall of 1897; Colorado, Loveland, July 25, 1895; and Texas, Wise County, September 26, 1893. It also has been taken once in New Zealand, at Wajinate, South Island, in June, 1883.

Egg dates: Alaska: 152 records, May 25 to July 13; 76 records, June 14 to 30. Arctic Canada: 14 records, June 21 to July 14; 7 records, June 24 to July 6. Spitsbergen: 22 records, June 24 to July 18; 11 records, June 28 to July 11. Iceland: 17 records, June 1 to 25; 9 records, June 14 to 22.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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