Press Releases

Recent Winter Storms Blew Red Phalaropes Ashore By JOE EATON Special to the Planet

Tuesday January 17, 2006

Two small gray shorebirds pitched down into the new Berkeley Marina mitigation wetlands, among the ducks and geese, and swam off out of binocular range. They were red phalaropes, part of a huge involuntary invasion blown in by the winter storms, scattered along the coast from the mouth of the Columbia River to Morro Bay. Some were dying of starvation when they hit land; the luckier ones seemed to be hanging around and regrouping before heading back out to sea. 

They wouldn’t be red for a few more months. A red phalarope in high breeding plumage is a nifty little bird: black crown, white face, bright chestnut neck and body. The fact that females have more vivid colors than males is consistent with their unorthodox lifestyle. Phalaropes—three species, the red, red-necked, and Wilson’s—are among a handful of birds in which females sport brighter plumage, take the lead in courtship, and hand over the chores of incubation and childrearing to the males. The phenomenon is known as reversed sexual dimorphism. Other birds exhibit it to some degree—females are larger in many species of birds of prey—but the syndrome is best developed in the shorebird order, in jacanas and painted snipe as well as phalaropes, and in the button-quail family. 

If the sex ratio on the red phalarope’s high-Arctic breeding grounds is skewed in favor of males, females may practice serial polyandry: deserting their first mate for a second male and laying a second clutch of eggs. When there’s no male surplus, the birds are more or less monogamous. Looking at the habits of some phalarope relatives, you can see how this may have evolved. In monogamous spotted sandpipers, the female produces a second clutch which she incubates herself while her mate incubates the first. Phalaropes have taken this one step further by delegating incubation to a second mate. Among birds, only jacanas go in for simultaneous polyandry: several males nesting in the territory of a dominant female. 

Red phalaropes were suspected of polyandrous tendencies for a long time, but it wasn’t until 1975 that two intrepid ornithologists, Douglas Schamel and Diane Tracy, braved the biting insects of the Alaskan marshes near Barrow to catch them in the act. Of eight paired females in their study area, half had multiple mates. Courtship involves aerial chases and a behavior called “pushing,” in which male and female face off and bump their chests together. 

The female lays her eggs in a scrape on the tundra, usually sheltered by sedges, and the male takes it from there. He has well-developed brood patches to conduct body heat to the eggs, and his blood is laced with the hormone prolactin which facilitates nurturant behavior. The hatchlings are precocial, able to run around and feed themselves, and stay with their father for only a couple of weeks. 

Once all that’s out of the way the phalaropes return to their other world, for which they’re superbly suited. “So well adapted to a floating life are phalaropes”, writes Peter Matthiesen in The Wind Birds, “that they seem to scud before the slightest breeze, like feathered pingpong balls.” They’re adept at foraging in crashing surf. 

Like many marine birds, phalaropes have glands that allow them to drink seawater and excrete salt through their nostrils. They lack fully webbed feet, but their toes are lobed. Whether on sea or tundra ponds, they spin in tight circles—up to 57 rotations per minute—to concentrate small aquatic prey, scooping it up with specialized bills that may act as strainers. The direction of spin can be either clockwise or counterclockwise and appears independent of the Coriolis force.  

Whalers used to call red phalaropes “bowhead birds” because of their association with the great baleen whales. They’ve been observed picking “whale lice” and other ectoparasites off the cetaceans’ backs. In late summer in the Bering Sea, reds take advantage of the sloppy feeding behavior of California gray whales. As the whales plow up the seafloor, the phalaropes sift the resulting mud plume for small bottom-dwelling crustaceans.  

For most of the winter, red phalaropes are birds of the great nearshore currents, where upwellings bring a cornucopia of plankton to the surface. The ones that were blown ashore here may have been lingering in the California Current. Most Alaskan and eastern Siberian nesters wind up further south, in the Humboldt Current off Peru and Chile. Their counterparts in Canada and northern Europe traverse the Atlantic to the west coast of Africa, concentrating in the Canary, Guinea, and Benguela currents. Both populations migrate over the open ocean. 

Red phalaropes from the Benguela Current, off Namibia, sometimes fetch up in South Africa after storms, so I assume they’re the titular bird of Alan Paton’s apartheid-era novel Too Late the Phalarope. As I recall, there are no actual phalaropes in the book except the ones in a bird guide that the protagonist gives his estranged father, or vice versa. It’s been a few decades since I read it, so my memory may not be reliable. 

When El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events perturb sea-surface temperatures, red phalaropes appear to suffer. One study showed a decline in breeding densities at Prudhoe Bay following the 1983 ENSO. And if, as some climatologists speculate, global warming deranges the oceanic currents, the phalaropes will be in deep trouble. 

As will we all, of course.