I remember driving down the hilltop overlooking Hart’s Basin. I’d heard that there were red-necked phalaropes and I was anxious to see them.
I drove slowly, with one eye on the rear-view mirror, and there was movement on the far western end of the northwest pond. It looked like small birds moving very quickly . . . phalaropes?
Likely so. As I drove along the causeway, I could see that they were indeed phalaropes, but the parking area was too far to the east. So I continued across the causeway, and there, on the northeast pond, was a whole flock of them
These little birds are less than eight inches long (a robin measures about 10 inches) and they are unusual at our reservoir since they are only migrating through. I didn’t want to miss them!
They feed by swimming circles — very rapidly! And as they swim, they peck at the water’s surface to pick up any food that they may have stirred up. A lot of work and small pickings, seems to me! I watched them in amazement and they were completely oblivious of me.
I’ve read that these small birds were “pelagic.” To me, that term means ocean-going and “Sibley’s Guide to Birds” shows the nesting grounds in the far north of our continent with migration along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. But the migration routes look as if they would be a long distance from land. So I called my friend and bird expert, Dave Galinat.
He explained that “pelagic” means “open ocean.” But I have difficulty with that: I can’t envision these little birds out in the open ocean! Dave grew up on the eastern seaboard and had often seen red-necked phalaropes as well as the similar bird, the red-phalarope, out in the open seas.
Sibley’s Guide indicates that these tundra nesters have been recorded in our area of Colorado. So these migrants took on added significance to me! I asked Dave about foraging in their spinning-top style out in the open sea (I couldn’t visualize that) and he explained that a dead animal or bird would attract insects and the phalaropes could feed. Or if a whale, a dolphin or such “blows” (expels its breath) there would be minute organism gathering to consume the residue. I had never thought of that!
There are three species. Wilson’s phalarope is the most common at Hart’s Basin with its migration through our state, but the red-phalarope is rare here.
All of these birds have a sexual reversal: the female is more colorful and after she lays the eggs, she deserts the male, leaving him with incubating, brooding and raising the chicks! Now I gaze at my phalaropes and try to envision them on the open ocean. I still find that difficult, but fascinating at the same time.