These birds feel right at home in the water

Three varieties of phalarope exist in the world, including the red-necked phalarope, shown here, and all occur in Oregon.Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife

If you want to strike terror into the heart of a developing birder, shout "Peeps!"

I don't mean the marshmallow kind, but the tiny shorebirds that worry mudflats in flocks of a dozen to a hundred or more during migration. There are many different species that must be considered when attempting to identify them, and all look so similar they might as well be the same.

Shorebirds, in general, are dressed in grays, browns, blacks and whites, nothing flashy. There are few reds and no blues or greens on their palette. Yes, the black-necked stilt and American avocet are both elegant and distinctive as they parade about the shallow ponds of the Klamath Basin, but these are the exceptions.

On top of their dull colors, it is usually impossible to tell male from female. There are slight differences in bill size and shape in some species, but little more.

Dull-colored birds are not unusual. Sparrows and small flycatchers are also on this rather long list. It's the safe thing to do to avoid becoming someone's lunch. It's also not unusual for males and females to be similar. This is especially true for monogamous birds such as robins and sparrows.

However, if we consider all the shorebirds that pass through Oregon or breed here, there are a few notable exceptions to the pattern of plain and uniform appearance. These are the phalaropes, and they are different.

There are only three species around the world, and all occur in Oregon.

The red and red-necked phalaropes migrate along the Oregon Coast and breed in the Arctic. The Wilson's phalarope breeds on lakes in western North America.

They are unquestionably related to other shorebirds, but unlike their kin that scurry on the mudflats and beaches, these are more content swimming than wading. Their toes have flaps of skin on the sides of their toes, much like webbing, which helps them swim.

Two of the three species spend nine months of the year far out to sea feeding on minute crustaceans and other plankton. They often feed by spinning in tight circles. This creates a little whirlpool that draws up food from lower in the water. The Wilson's phalarope winters on the lakes high in the Andes of South America doing much the same.

Unlike most other shorebirds, male and female phalaropes wear different plumage in the breeding season. And even more unusual, it's not the male that wears the bright colors. Females are strikingly patterned, including rich reds and chestnuts while the male wears the somber colors.

And it doesn't end there. It's the female that courts the male. And once the clutch is laid, it is the male that settles down to incubate the eggs. At this point many females take off to court another male. The young never see the mother.

Why do phalaropes differ from other shorebirds in so many ways? I am unable to offer a convincing answer. I invite you to check phalaropes out for yourself and see what you think. Wilson's phalaropes breed in the Klamath Basin and can be seen easily along Stateline Road at White Lake near Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge.

Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at janes@sou.edu.


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