Phalaropes eccentric members of shorebird clan

8:00 am | May 12, 2013

It’s mid-May and spring migration shows no sign of slowing down any time soon.
I received numerous calls last week from readers eager to share a sighting.

Pat Gouge, who lives in Limestone Cove in Unicoi County, shared that her Eastern Bluebirds have returned.

Steven Pate, who lives on Gap Creek Road in Hampton, reported a large, red-crowned woodpecker. From his description, it sounds like he saw a Pileated Woodpecker, which is the largest woodpecker in Northeast Tennessee. The Pileated Woodpecker was the most common member of its family on the recent Spring Bird Count conducted by members of the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society. A total of 53 of these woodpeckers were tallied during the count.

Betty Murray, who lives in the Powder Branch community, shared a very special sighting. She called me over the weekend to let me know she saw her very first male Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Her call brought back a memory of the very first time I saw this chunky, colorful songbird. With its black-and-white plumage and a large, rose-colored splash of color across the breast, this bird never fails to make a memorable impression.

S.H. Minton called to let me know of a large flock of American Goldfinches at her feeder. She estimated the flock may have contained 100 birds. She lives near the Elizabethton Municipal Airport.

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My list of birds for 2013 continued to grow this past week, but I also enjoyed the added bonus of adding a new life bird to the list of birds I have observed since I began birding back in the 1990s.

One of the additions to my year list last week took place entirely by accident. While moving my car, I flushed a male Common Yellowthroat out of a thicket of weeds and brush near the driveway. This member of the warbler family became Bird No. 130 for the year.

My mom and I stopped at the linear trail along the wetland in the industrial park in Erwin on Saturday, May 4. Almost immediately after exiting my car, I heard a loudly singing warbler. After scanning some treetops with my binoculars, I managed to focus on a singing male Yellow Warbler. At the same time, I heard another Yellow Warbler singing but never located it. So, Yellow Warbler became Bird No. 131 for 2013.

The new bird for both my life list and my attempt at a long year list involved a sighting of a Red-necked Phalarope at Austin Springs on Boone Lake on Monday, May 6.

This is a rare bird for the region, and it was discovered partly because birders had gathered at Austin Springs to look for another rare bird — Snowy Egret — that had been reported.
I learned about the presence of both birds later Monday afternoon, so I headed to Austin Springs once I left work. I found David Kirshke and Brookie and Jean Potter already at the location. They had successfully re-located the phalarope and one of the two egrets that had been observed earlier in the day.

Finding the phalarope proved a frustrating experience. After two different unsuccessful attempts to find the bird from across the lake and from a bridge spanning the lake, I drove to the wet pasture that comprises what local birders refer to as Austin Springs.

The third time became the charm, and I arrived to find that David Kirshke had the bird already in focus in his scope. The Red-necked Phalarope became Bird No. 132 for the year.
After spending some time observing this small shorebird, we moved into a region around a cattail-bordered series of ponds to look for the Snowy Egrets.

This hunt didn’t take long at all. The egret surprised us by flying to the top of a tall tree at the edge of a pond. We got great looks at this elegant white bird and took some photographs. The Snowy Egret became Bird No. 133 for the year.

While watching the Snowy Egret, we also noticed a Green Heron, which became a sort of bonus for the trip and made my list as Bird No. 134 for the year.

Phalaropes belong to the family of shorebirds that includes sandpipers, plovers, dowitchers and an assortment of other birds.

Another name for phalarope is “wadepiper.” There are three species of phalaropes in the genus Phalaropus.

As shorebirds, the phalaropes are the “eccentric” members of the family. They deviate from normal shorebird behavior in several ways.

The best-known characteristic of the phalaropes involves their feeding behavior. Instead of wading or foraging on a seashore, they employ a practice that could be described as “swim and spin.”

A feeding phalarope swims in a circle, gradually spinning more rapidly, to create a whirlpool. Experts believe this behavior aids the foraging process by raising small organisms to the surface. The bird then uses its needle-thin bill to pluck the small prey items from the vortex its spinning has generated.

While this was the first time I had seen a Red-necked Phalarope, I have seen hundreds of the related Wilson’s Phalarope.

I saw my first Wilson’s Phalarope years ago during a field trip to Rankin Bottoms at Douglas Lake. That’s still the only Wilson’s Phalarope I have found in Tennessee. On a trip to Utah in 2006, however, I discovered that these shorebirds were very common on every temporary pond in flooded fields and pastures. Some large ponds had hundreds of these birds, which all looked like spinning feathered tops at the surface of the water. I also observed Wilson’s Phalaropes during a trip to Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake.

I’ve never encountered the third species — Red Phalarope — in my birding adventures.

The life cycle of phalaropes also keeps them away from human eyes for part of the year. The Red and Red-necked Phalaropes, in particular, spend most of the winter out to sea far from land.

The phalaropes also practice a sort of sexual role reversal. Females are larger and more brightly colored than males, which is the opposite of what is true for most birds.

Phalaropes stretch this difference to extremes, and females fight and actively pursue males. A female will also gather a sort of harem of males around her, warding off any intruding females to keep them away from her multiple mates.

Once a female phalarope lays her eggs, this role reversal continues to be practiced. The males take over incubation duties for the eggs. Once the young hatch, males are also in charge of caring for them. The practice of a female phalarope selecting multiple males as her mates is known in scientific terms as “serial polyandry.”

I can’t help but think that the female phalaropes gather somewhere and have a good laugh about this while the males are busy incubating eggs and feeding phalarope chicks.

According to Rick Knight’s book, The Bird of Northeast Tennessee, the last sighting of a Red-necked Phalarope in Northeast Tennessee took place May 21-22 in 1992. The bird is considered a rare transient during spring and fall migration.

There is a single record of a Red Phalarope from Sept. 11, 1990.

The Wilson’s Phalarope, although still considered a rare transient, has been sighted in the region a few times more often than its kin.

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I added one additional bird last week when a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak arrived at the feeders while I was having breakfast on Thursday, May 9. I have heard from readers about their sightings of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, so it was nice to finally add this beautiful bird to my list as Bird No. 135 for the year.

The Red-necked Phalarope is a rare visitor to the region.

The Red-necked Phalarope is a rare visitor to the region.

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Make a comment, ask a question or share an observation by calling me at 297-9077 or by sending an email to bstevens@starhq.com or ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. I am also on Facebook.

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