Odd Bird: Red Phalarope

This blog first appeared as a Guest Post on Babs Book Bistro July 16.

Red phalarope in non-breeding plumage. Photo by Mary Feliz

Red phalarope in non-breeding plumage. Photo by Mary Feliz

Moves like a wind-up toy. 

Looks like an origami sculpture. 

Makes my mom belly-laugh. 


What’s not to like?  They are funny little aquatic birds that look as though they’re made of origami. Better still, they feed by spinning in circles and then snapping their pointy little beaks to slurp what they’ve stirred up. The result is behavior most often seen in a wind-up toy. It’s been researched by experts in hydrodynamics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Males sit on the nests and incubate the eggs.

And my 91-year-old mom can’t look at them without laughing. I love them. Several species, most often the red-necked phalarope, visit our coastal pond in the fall as they return from the Arctic tundra to their winter feeding grounds far off the coast of South America. 

Spotting them any other time is unusual. Their primary habitat is at sea, feeding off the critters that hang out in kelp beds. But every once in a while, during particularly stormy weather, one or two will seek sheltered waters ashore. 

And while they’re quietly spinning their circles, the local birding community goes mad. This spring, my novice birder husband spotted four phalaropes early in the morning. Three were already dressed in full-mating plumage for the Arctic party. The trio were easily identifiable as the red-necked phalaropes, male and female. 

But another bird lurked in their midst. The mostly white and grey mottled bird with dramatic eye markings sported its subtle winter feathers. We told a local avian aficionado, asking him to let us know when he’d identified the fourth bird. He told a few friends. Within the hour there were five birders with binoculars, cameras, and funny hats recording every head bob. A gentle drizzle pockmarked the water surface. Pondering head slope, beak length and width, markings, and body size, no one was sure. Was it a red-necked, or the far rarer and slightly larger red phalarope? The birds swam close enough together for a size comparison and cameras clicked as though snapping royal offspring. By mid-afternoon, in driving rain and high winds, more fans ogled from the shoreline. That evening, after enlarging and comparing photos online, Alex Rinkert, an editor for the E-bird phone app, made the call. Size, head, and beak made it a red.

My novice birder husband had been the first to alert the locals. Mostly, we were happy to share our avian neighbors with the bird-crazy community. But there was a certain amount of sublime pleasure in having scooped the experts. 

What does birding have to do with writing? I’m not sure, but a significant percentage of authors are nature geeks, including bird watchers. Maybe it’s the patience required for both pursuits. Maybe it’s the need to soothe our brains with the peace that can only be found in the outdoors. Or the creativity that’s sparked when quiet minds are immersed in a world in which we’re not in control. It’s a mystery!

What about you? Are you a nature lover, a city slicker, or both? Have you ever spotted a natural phenomenon that the experts missed? How do you spur your creativity? 

Pond, slough, and ocean locales make for great bird watching. Photo by Mary Feliz

Pond, slough, and ocean locales make for great bird watching. Photo by Mary Feliz

Mary Feliz