Wilson's Phalarope

Bird of the Month: Wilson's Phalarope

By Hugh Jennings


Scientific Name: Phalaropus tricolor

Length 9.25 in

Wingspan 17 in

Weight 2.1 oz

AOU Band code WIPH

The Wilson’s Phalarope (WIPH) is about 9.25” long with a wingspan of 17” and a weight of 2.1 oz. (60g). The genus name Phalaropus (fal-AY-row-pus) is Latin from the Greek phalaris, coot, and pous, foot. The species name tricolor (TRY-color) is Latin in reference to the three colors of this bird: white, black, and brown-red. The common name is in honor of Alexander Wilson, an early American ornithologist. 

The Wandering Tattler (WATA) is about 11” long with a wingspan of 26” and a weight of 3.9 The WIPH is the largest and most land-oriented of the three phalaropes and is the only one limited to the New World. All three phalarope species have lobed toes.

Phalaropes reverse the sex roles in birds: females are larger and more brightly colored than the males and take the lead in courtship. The females leave after egg-laying and the males incubate the eggs and raise the young. The female in breeding plumage has a light gray crown, back, wings and tail. A broad black streak goes through the eye and down the neck blending into a reddish-brown. The legs are black. The throat, belly, sides and undertail are white. The black bill is very long and thin compared to the other phalaropes. (Photo was provided by Marv Breece).

The breeding male has gray-brown upper-parts and top of head. The neck is reddish-brown to light brown with a white throat. In winter plumage, non-breeding, both have light gray upperparts and yellow legs. In flight, the upper wings are gray with no wing-stripes and a whitish rump. Both other phalaropes show a white wing streak in flight. The WIPH is a bird of inland waters: shallow prairie lakes, fresh marshes, mudflats, and it nests mostly on the northern Great Plains. In Washington state, the birds are a fairly common late spring and early fall migrant, and nest in eastern WA. Their voice is a low, muffled, nasal grunting or moaning usually in flight on the breeding grounds. Huge numbers may gather in the fall on some salty lakes in the west like Mono Lake, and Great Salt Lake, before migrating to South America.

The phalaropes forage mostly while swimming, picking  aquatic insects, flies , larvae, beetles, etc., from the surface of the water or just below it.  They often spin in circles in shallow water to stir the water up and bring food closer to the surface. The nest is usually built in shallow freshwater marshes in open country and is generally on ground near water; it is sometimes a couple of inches above ground in marsh plants. A typical nest is a shallow depression with a slight lining of vegetation. The female takes part in choosing the nest site, but the male finishes the nest. The male incubates the 3-4 brown-blotched, buff colored eggs for 22-25 days and takes care of the young which fledge in about 20 days. . The male may try to lure predators away from the nest or young by doing a broken-wing act.