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Wilson's Phalarope

Phalaropus tricolor ORDER: CHARADRIIFORMES FAMILY: SCOLOPACIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Every year in late summer, migrating Wilson's Phalaropes put on an amazing show as enormous flocks amass on salty lakes of the West. There they spin round and round in the nutrient-rich waters, creating whirlpools that stir up invertebrates that will fuel their migration to South America. Females are rich peachy and gray, and are more colorful than the males. Females court and defend male mates—several per season—while males do most of the work of raising the young.

Keys to identification Help

Shorebirds
Shorebirds
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Wilson’s Phalaropes are small shorebirds with long legs, slender necks, and very thin, straight, long bills. They have sharply pointed wings.

  • Color Pattern

    Wilson’s Phalaropes are grayish birds with cinnamon or rusty highlights especially on the neck. In the breeding season females are more colorful than males, with a dark line through the eye extending down the neck. The throat is white and the neck is washed rusty. Nonbreeding birds are pale gray above, white below, without the strong facial markings of other phalarope species.

  • Behavior

    Phalaropes are the only shorebirds that regularly swim in deep water. They bob on the surface, often spinning in circles to bring small food items within reach of their slender bills.

  • Habitat

    Wilson’s Phalaropes breed in marshes of the Great Plains and intermountain West. They spend winters in South America, mainly on high lakes in the Andes. On migration, great numbers congregate on salty lakes and coastal marshes of the West.

Range Map Help

Wilson
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Breeding female

    Wilson's Phalarope

    Breeding female
    • © dwaynejava, Blenheim, Ontario, Canada, May 2013
  • Breeding male

    Wilson's Phalarope

    Breeding male
  • Juvenile

    Wilson's Phalarope

    Juvenile
    • © dwaynejava, Point Pelee National Park, Ontario, Canada, August 2011
  • Nonbreeding adult

    Wilson's Phalarope

    Nonbreeding adult

Similar Species

Phalaropes’ slim bodies and slender bills distinguish them from most birds you see in the water, such as ducks, grebes, and auks; their habit of swimming rather than wading further sets them apart from their shorebird relatives. Among the three phalarope species, Wilson’s Phalarope is the most likely to be seen inland. Red Phalaropes have shorter and thicker bills than Wilson’s Phalaropes. In breeding plumage Red Phalaropes are mostly reddish below. Red-necked Phalaropes in breeding plumage have dark crowns and gray chests, compared to the Wilson’s Phalarope’s light gray crown, white underparts, and cinnamon-washed necks. In winter, both Red Phalaropes and Red-necked Phalaropes show a dark ear patch that Wilson’s Phalaropes lack. Wilson’s Phalaropes occasionally walk on mudflats, and when they do this in winter plumage they can resemble other grayish shorebirds such as Lesser Yellowlegs. Size and shape still differ between phalaropes and other shorebirds; Lesser Yellowlegs are larger, with thicker bills and longer legs, they also are grayer and streakier on the breast than Wilson’s Phalaropes.

Find This Bird

To find Wilson’s Phalaropes on their breeding grounds, visit small marshes and shallow wetlands and look out for these small, fairly long-legged birds. At this time of year they may be behaving like “normal” shorebirds, walking on land or in shallow water as they tend their ground nests. During migration, look for them in sometimes enormous numbers at places like Mono Lake, the Salton Sea, or the Great Salt Lake, as well as sewage ponds and smaller wetlands. Here they’ll be acting very unlike a shorebird—swimming in deeper water, where their small size, angular shape, needle-like bills, and habit of spinning in circles should help you pick them out.

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