Bird of the Month April 2021

Wilson's Phalarope

Phalaropus tricolor


Wilson’s phalaropes are shorebirds about the size of a killdeer. They have long legs and a slender short black bill. During the breeding season, the female is more brightly colored than the male. She will sport a gray crown that stretches all the way down the back of her neck to her wings, a black “bandit” mask from her eye down the side of her neck to the wing, rust-red and gray wings, and reddish neck and chest while he will have a brown crown with a small white line down the back of his neck, a brown eye stripe and mottled brown wings when at rest. They both will have a white throat and eye-stripe.

Behavior and Habitat

If you have ever seen a bird that seemed to have lost its mind or might have the bird equivalent of whirling disease, it was likely a Wilson’s phalarope. Wilson’s phalaropes are the only shorebirds to routinely swim in deep water and they often hunt their prey by spinning tight circles to stir things up.

Wilson’s phalaropes' nest in marshes, nearby uplands, and along canal banks of the Great Plains and the Intermountain West. The female will almost always lay precisely four eggs. But that is where things depart from the norm of parental care. Once the eggs are laid, the female is off to find a new mate and the male is left to brood the eggs and raise the chicks. This somewhat unusual breeding system is known as polyandry and is why the female is more highly colored than the male.

Like many shorebirds, Wilson’s phalaropes begin migration southward toward the end of summer. Unlike all but one other species though, Wilson’s phalaropes molt at resting sites along the migration pathway rather than on breeding or wintering grounds. When they stop over on salty lakes in the West, they gorge so heavily that they can double their body weight making it difficult to fly. Huge flocks may gather at these lakes in preparation for their trip to lakes in the Andes Mountains of South America.

Similar Species

Unless you go to the Great Salt Lake during migration, you are not going to see a Wilson’s phalarope in anything but breeding plumage. And, during the breeding season, the Wilson’s phalarope is pretty distinctive. You are most likely to confuse the Wilson’s phalarope with the red-necked phalarope. However, the red-necked phalarope has rusty red going all the way around the neck and the wings are not “two-toned” like the female Wilson’s phalarope.

When and where found at Camas NWR

Wilson’s phalaropes are common spring and summer visitors to Camas NWR. Look for them on any of the ponds that are flooded with water.


“Wilson’s Phalarope numbers have remained level or declined slightly since 1966 (less than 1% per year), according to the North American Breeding Survey. A 2012 assessment estimated their population at 1.5 million breeding individuals, although it noted a lack of data and based this estimate on a 2006 study. Wilson’s Phalaropes breed across the Great Plains and intermountain West, and their numbers dropped sharply in the early twentieth century as wetlands in these regions were altered. They are still dependent on wetland habitat, water quality, and the availability of surface water. On migration, they stage in huge numbers at hypersaline lakes such as Mono Lake and the Salton Sea. Because so many birds congregate, changes to these areas including water diversion and reclamation could have serious repercussions.”

Text by Terry Thomas. Source: