by Frank Keim
I remember when I first saw this bird in Hooper Bay in April, 1980. I couldn’t help but comment to my girlfriend (soon to be my wife) that it was one of the most beautiful sandpipers I’d ever seen. Brilliantly red with a white face and yellow bill it glowed like the flame of a fire near the edge of the pond where it was spinning in circles searching for tidbits of food.
I did a double take when my bird book said it was a female and not a male that I was looking at. For, like its cousin, the Red-necked phalarope, which was feeding close-by in deeper water, it is one of the few bird species that reverses its role completely from what’s “normal” for most other birds. The female, and not the male, is brighter colored and larger than its mate, and she takes the lead in courtship. Also, as with other phalarope species, it’s the male, not the female, who is responsible for incubation of the eggs, and the feeding and raising of the young.
Although these sandpipers live and feed on open waters in the Pacific Ocean for most of the year, in April they move north in flocks that include the slimmer looking Red-necked phalaropes to Bering Sea and Arctic waters to begin nesting preparations.
Once on their breeding grounds, they eat mostly insects such as midges, cranefly larvae, worms, and small mollusks and crustaceans. They generally feed in shallower water than Red-necked phalaropes. During the rest of the year, while at sea, they eat mainly zooplankton, including copepods and amphipods, plus fish eggs and larvae.
During courtship females are fiercely competitive with other females and will even fight each other over males. I’ve watched them in the Arctic Refuge as they fly in circles, chasing a male in the air, or pursuing him on water, heads hunched down between their shoulders.
After helping choose a nest site with her first mate and laying her first clutch of eggs there, she will often repeat the ritual with a second mate and lay a second clutch of eggs in his nest. The nest sites are on the tundra among low sedges and grasses, usually near water. The nest itself is only a shallow scrape lined with grass, lichens, moss and feathers. Both sexes make scrapes from which the female selects one to lay her eggs in. The male adds the nest lining after the first egg is laid. He will use this lining to pull over the eggs to conceal them when he gets hungry and leaves to forage.
Up to four olive-buff to green eggs, speckled with dark splotches are laid in the scrape in the form of a cross, and the male incubates them for 18-20 days. When they hatch the chicks are covered in tawny down with black stripes on the back.
The young leave the nest within a day after hatching, and the father bird leads them to the edge of a nearby pond. He alone tends them while they feed by themselves. He may remain with them until they can fly, or, knowing the young can care for themselves, he may leave them after just a few days.
By then, he will have shown the young birds some of the tricks of the trade, like foraging while swimming and picking items from the water’s surface, or by spinning in circles on shallow water with its lobate toes to stir things up to bring food closer to the surface. Or also, feeding while wading near the shore, and fluttering up to catch insects in the air. They will do this for 16-18 days until they finally develop the confidence to leap into the air and defy gravity with their first flight.
In late summer, the young will follow adult birds out to sea where they flock around bowhead and gray whales to feed on crustaceans stirred up as the whales feed along the bottom. Whalers once called these sandpipers “bowhead birds” and looked for the flocks when searching for whales. The birds may also feed alongside walrus and ringed seals in the same way.
Since Red phalaropes live for most of the year in the open ocean, their numbers are difficult to measure, but they are thought to have declined significantly since the mid-20th century. As a water surface-feeding sandpiper, they are vulnerable to oil spills. They are also prone to picking up plastic. Two recent surveys found that most Red phalaropes in the studies had plastic in their stomachs. Also, since their breeding areas are in the sub and high Arctic, they will increasingly be more vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
I was told the Yup’ik name for Red phalarope in Hooper Bay, Chevak and the Nunivak Island area was Augtaaraq, which probably refers to the male’s discomfort with what the female has done, perhaps in reference to their role reversal. Along the Yukon (incl. Scammon Bay) and Kuskokwim Rivers, I was given the name Ayungnaaraq, possibly referring to its hyperactive spinning motion that might be interpreted as causing the bird to be tired.
Their scientific name, Phalaropus fulicarius, means a small sandpiper-like shorebird having lobate toes.
And finally, their common English moniker, like their genus name, comes originally from the Greek phalaris, meaning coot, and pous (foot), because coots and phalaropes both have lobed toes.