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.