This week’s featured creature is a most peculiar bird, indeed.

The Wilson’s phalarope is a shorebird which travels through Oklahoma during migration, which is now. And, on a side note, if you’re tired of reading about migrating shorebirds, or shorebirds in general, fret not, as this will most likely be the last one until next year.

To me, the most peculiar thing about these birds is their feeding behavior. They bob along in shallow water, often spinning in circles.

Although there is a method to their madness, to me, they appear to be defective wind-up robots. It is quite a hoot to watch them in action, however.

Another unusual attribute about phalaropes is the reversal of the usual sex roles in birds. Unlike with most bird species, female phalaropes are more colorful than males, and females are the ones who court and defend their male mates. And a female can have many mates in each season.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, female phalaropes desert their mates once they’ve laid eggs. While a male provides all the parental care, raising the young by himself, the female then looks for other males to mate with.

The unusual mating system -- called polyandry -- is reflected in the way the two sexes look, with females being more brightly colored than males.

Appearance

These long-legged birds are about 8.5 to 9.5 inches in length, with females being larger than males. Their bills are straight and thin.

Breeding females are mostly white below, with blue-gray and chestnut coloring above. Females also have thick black stripes going from the bill and down the neck, and peach coloring on the necks in front of the stripes (photo).

Breeding males resemble females, but are are duller, and have a faint black stripe from the bill and down the neck (photo).

Non-breeding adults are grayish above and white below (photo).

Range

Wilson’s phalaropes nest mostly in northern and western states, and well up into Canada, eh. Also in areas around the Great Lakes Region.

After the breeding season, virtually all adults, often in huge flocks, undergo a molt migration and stage at hypersaline/alkaline lakes of western North America, before flying to their wintering grounds in South America.

Habitat

During migration, mostly shallow areas of lakes and may stop at ponds, coastal marshes and sewage treatment plants. Nearly 100% of the time that I have observed these birds, they were in the shallow areas of lakes, and, to a lesser extent, shallow ponds created in muddy agricultural fields.

Food

Wilson’s phalaropes eat mostly aquatic insects and crustaceans.

As I mentioned previously, there is a method to their feeding madness. When they spin around in circles, it creates a whirlpool that sucks up food items to the surface of the water.

They also eat a variety of flies and their larvae, beetles, true bugs, and other insects, mainly aquatic species.

Other feeding techniques include chasing and picking prey from the surface of mud or water, standing still and stabbing at passing flies and probing inside mud.

Odds and ends

The Wilson’s phalarope was named after American ornithologist Alexander Wilson. The bird was first described in 1819 by Louis Jean Pierre Vieillot, a French ornithologist who fled Haiti for the United States during the French Revolution and began studying the birds here.

Editor’s Note: Randy Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. He has been an avid birdwatcher, nature enthusiast and photographer for more than 40 years. Reach him at rnw@usa.com.

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