Wilson’s Phalarope, Phalaropus tricolor

The Wilson’s Phalarope (Phalaropus tricolor) is a small wader. It is, however, the largest of the phalaropes.

This bird breeds in the prairies of North America in western Canada and the western USA. It is migratory, wintering in South America. It is a rare vagrant to Western Europe.

Wilson’s Phalaropes are unusually halophilic (salt-loving) and feed in great numbers when on migration on saline lakes such as Mono Lake in California and the Great Salt Lake of Utah, often with Red-necked Phalaropes.

Wilson’s Phalarope is roughlyt 23 cm in length. It has lobed toes and a straight fine black bill. The breeding female is predominantly gray and brown above, with white underparts, a reddish neck and reddish flank patches. The breeding male is a duller version of the female, with a brown back, and the reddish patches reduced or absent.

Young birds are grey and brown above, with whitish underparts and a dark patch through the eye. In winter, the plumage is essentially grey above and white below, but the dark eyepatch is always present.

The typical avian sex roles are reversed in the three phalarope species; females are larger and more brightly colored than males. The females also pursue males, compete for nesting territory, and will aggressively defend their nests and chosen mates. Once the females lay their eggs, they begin their southward migration, leaving the males to incubate the eggs. Three to four eggs are laid in a ground nest near water. The young feed themselves.

Wilson’s Phalarope will often swim in a small, rapid circle when feeding, forming a small whirlpool. This behavior is thought to aid feeding by raising food from the bottom of shallow water. The bird will reach into the outskirts of the vortex with its bill, plucking small insects or crustaceans caught up therein.

Although very common, this bird’s population may have declined in some areas due to the loss of prairie wetland habitat. A few staging areas are of critical importance during migration.

This species is often very tame and approachable. It was named after the American ornithologist Alexander Wilson by Louis Jean Pierre Vieillot, who first described the bird in 1819.

Image Caption: A female in breeding plumage. Credit: Dominic Sherony/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)