Red Phalarope Seabirds

Phalarope Life

In the winter of 2005-2006, a rare seabird, the red phalarope, a sandpiper relative that lives not on the sandy shore but out at sea, strayed inland to rest in rain-soaked ponds, bays and other unlikely places in Northern California. I went in search of information and a real-life sighting of this bird usually seen only at sea in winter or on the Arctic tundra in summer.

Scientists are unsure why the birds have come so far inland outside their usual winter range. They hypothesize that the birds are seeking refuge and food after trying to fly and survive in strong offshore storms.

When we found 20 phalaropes (see below for more on the details of our quest), to my fairly untrained eye, they looked energetic and healthy, but I did wonder about how much food was available in the small pond in which they had taken refuge.

During our visit, we were able to observe several exciting elements of their behavior: spinning, vocalizing, and acrobatic flying.

As we approached the target pond from a distance, I could see dozens of big ripples on the water. I realized that they were caused by small birds whirling in a spinning motion. I knew instantly that we had succeeded in our quest. Phalaropes usually spin to create an ingenious vortext that pulls in aimlessly drifting plankton. However, what kind of plankton exists in a salt marsh pond? The birds also eat small fish and aquatic insects that were perhaps the target of pond-based spinning.

There were around 20 phalaropes in the pond, so we heard many of their clink-clink vocalizations, appropriate for the post-Christmas time of year.

I was also treated to the spectacular flight of one phalarope moving acrobatically up toward a nearby school and then dipping and landing weightlessly on the surface of the water. Without any hesitation, it immediately launched into the spinning behavior.

What we did not see was the red color of the phalarope's name. In winter, they are gray, white, and black. They have a striking black eye stripe. For the summer breeding season, they gain their red color.

I also researched the origin of the unusual name of this bird. It is French by way of Latin and Greek roots and refers to "having a white spot."

A Quest for Red Phalaropes

An article put out by the Associated Press alerted me to the rare presence of the birds. For details, I turned to Rarebirds.com, a website that publishes Rare Bird Alerts (RBA) compiled by local Audubon societies and other groups of skilled birders. A birder had filed an RBA regarding the birds at an elementary school in Marin County. With the address and GPS, we found the pond quite easily.

The setting for the sighting was a pond directly behind the elementary school. It looked as if the pond had grown dramatically in size due to recent storms since it was beginning to almost encroach on a playground. Perhaps there isn't even a pond in that location year-round. There was an area of salt marsh directly behind the pond. Many white-crowned sparrows were actively feeding in the grasses at the pond's edge. Despite the marsh location, there were also many houses and development nearby. Beyond that we could barely see San Francisco Bay.

Rarebirds.com reports from birders indicate that the red phalaropes are inhabiting flooded fields in San Mateo county, a bit south of Marin. This phenomenon is similar to what we experienced in that the pond we found seemed to have flooded on to nearby grass.

The weather was extremely overcast with periods of light to moderate rain and temperatures in the 50s.

As our two-year-old daughter looked excitedly at the pond and flapped her wings like a bird, we realized that we were fortunate to experience a snapshot of ocean-going life contained in a modest pond. It was a great example of a knowledge quest.