(This 865th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on October 21, 2007.)
Photo of Red-necked Phalarope by Jerry Lazarczyk
The cell phone call came from Bob Andrle. He had found a red-necked phalarope swimming in Lakeside Memorial Park in Hamburg.
This was perfect timing for Jerry Lazarczyk and me because we had just completed a hike in Letchworth Park. We headed home by way of Hamburg.
When we pulled up at the pond edge an hour later, we immediately saw the bird and Jerry spent the better part of another hour taking photographs. One is included with this column.
Phalaropes are shorebirds, relatives of the sandpipers and plovers. Most readers know just the killdeer, but several dozen shorebird species occur here, mostly during fall migration. Included among them are species with odd names like yellowlegs, sanderlings, turnstones, dunlins, knots, godwits, willets, dowitchers, wimbrels, avocets, woodcock and snipe. Yes, snipe; they are not just the fictitious birds youngsters are sent out to find after dark armed only with spear and banana.
Phalaropes are among the least common of these shorebirds and Jerry immediately called in the bird's location to the recently established Buffalo Ornithological Society hotline. This service communicates quickly to all society members the appearance of a rare bird that has appeared in the region. It represents, I believe, one of the best benefits of belonging to that organization.
Phalaropes are quite easily separated from other shorebirds. Their swimming habits -- nervously twisting and turning as they seek surface insects in shallow water -- distinguish them from other species.
There are three phalarope species that appear here occasionally: Wilson's, red and red-necked. Unlike almost all other birds, in their breeding plumage it is the female phalaropes that are brightly colored, the males simply drab versions of the females. Unfortunately these birds are even less common here in spring when they sport this garb. I have seen only the Wilson's phalarope here at that time of year. During fall migration these colors are gone and both male and female are almost entirely gray and white. At this time only slightly different facial markings serve to distinguish the species.
Red-necked phalaropes nest in the far north where they are one of those species that attract birders to places like Hudson's Bay and Alaska. There observers can witness their unusual breeding habits, an almost complete role reversal that corresponds to their plumage reversal.
Here is how gifted writer E. W. Nelson described their courtship in the flowery language of 1887: "The dull-colored male moves about the pool, apparently heedless of the surrounding females. Such stoical indifference usually appears too much for the feelings of some of the fair ones to bear. A female coyly glides close to him and bows her head in pretty submissiveness, but he turns away, pecks at a bit of food and moves off; she follows and he quickens his speed, but in vain; he is her choice, and she proudly arches her neck and in mazy circles passes and repasses close before the harassed bachelor. He turns his breast first to one side, then to the other, as though to escape, but there is his gentle wooer ever pressing her suit before him. Frequently he takes flight to another part of the pool, all to no purpose. If with affected indifference he tries to feed, she swims along side by side, almost touching him, and at intervals rises on wing above him and, poised a foot or two over his back, makes a half dozen quick, sharp wing strokes, producing a series of sharp, whistling noises in rapid succession. In the course of time it is said that water will wear the hardest stone, and it is certain that time and importunity have their full effect upon the male of this phalarope. Soon all are comfortably married, while mater familias no longer needs to use her seductive ways and charming blandishments to draw his notice."
This behavioral reversal continues, however. After the female lays her eggs the male takes almost exclusive responsibility for brooding them. It is evident that somewhere along the line testosterone was differently directed among the phalaropes.
I can fully understand why birders (of both sexes) are willing to travel great distances and to put up with clouds of vicious mosquitoes to witness such unusual behavior.-- Gerry Rising