The Red-necked Phalarope is a small, darkish aquatic sandpiper with a short, needle-like bill. It passes through Washington waters as it migrates between its winter range in the Humboldt Current and other Southern Hemisphere areas and its breeding territory in the arctic tundra. Typically, this phalarope can be seen in the Inland Marine Waters in September as it heads south. Views from the Edmonds waterfront are usually distant, requiring binoculars or a spotting scope.
The Red-necked Phalarope can be seen in small numbers on wetland ponds, such as those at the Leque Island Fish & Wildlife Area (Discover Pass required) near Stanwood. Although most of this population migrates along the continental shelf off the Washington coast, some birds always head south through the interior of the Western U.S. and are found in small numbers on ponds and alkaline lakes.
Diet is variable with the season and habitat. At sea, the Red-necked Phalarope probably eats small crustaceans and mollusks. It eats mostly insects on its breeding grounds and on fresh water during migration. Insects include adults and larvae of caddisflies, beetles and flies. This phalarope also eats brine shrimp when migration stopovers are on alkaline lakes, such as those in Eastern Washington or the Great Basin. By spinning on the water, this phalarope creates a vortex that sucks prey to the surface on which it then feeds. Spinning is characteristic of all three phalarope species.
The Red-necked Phalarope is a circumpolar breeder. It is the female that seeks a mate so she has the more elaborate and brightly-colored breeding plumage. Her courtship displays include short flights, whirring of wings, and calling. She then swims around the male, trying to make him follow her. Initially, the male shows reluctance and then only gradually starts to show interest. The male cares for the eggs and young. Sometimes after laying her first clutch, the female will find another mate and lay a second clutch.
The nest, a shallow scrape lined with leaves and grass, is on the ground, usually in low vegetation near water. Both sexes make scrapes and then the female chooses one for her clutch. It is not known for certain, but probably both sexes build the nest. There are usually four eggs, incubated by the male only for almost three weeks. The downy young leave the nest the day after hatching. They go to the shore of a pond where they feed themselves. The male tends the young while they are small and then departs after about two weeks. Since the young are not able to fly until about three weeks of age, it seems there is a week of vulnerability after the male leaves.
A group of phalaropes has many collective nouns, including swirl, twirl, whirl, and whirligig of phalaropes. When you see them feeding on the water’s surface, you can appreciate how they swirl, whirl, and twirl about.
The Red-necked Phalarope has a conservation concern score of 12 in the 2016 State of North America’s Birds report. That means it is not a species of concern at the moment. However, a score of 13, in conjunction with a steeply declining population, would get it on the conservation watch list.
— By Carol Riddell
Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.