North American Shore Birds – Phalaropes

The graceful and handsome little birds known as Phalaropes may next claim our attention. Little swimming Sandpipers,” Dr. Coues aptly called them, and such they are, being in many ways adapted to strictly aquatic, even pelagic, life, and especially during the winter may often be seen in flocks floating on the ocean many miles from land. They are compactly built birds, between seven and nine inches in length, with short, compressed legs, the tarsus provided with transverse scutellae both before and behind, while the toes are furnished to the tip as in the Coots with a lateral margin or web, which may or may not be indented at the joints. The bill, in which the lateral groove extends nearly to the tip, is equal to or longer than the head, while the wings are relatively long and the tail short, the plumage of the breast and abdomen being compact and Duck or Gull-like, a provision obviously to keep the cold waters from contact with the body. But these structural features are by no means the only interesting points connected with these little birds, for, contrary to the conditions prevailing among most birds, the females are not only larger and brighter colored than the males, but they appear to do most of the love making and to permit the duty of nest building and incubation, as well as the care of the young, to fall upon their consorts, being, as Chapman says, ” male in all but the prime essentials of sex.”

Phalaropes are preeminently birds of the Northern Hemisphere, the three known species being usually placed in separate genera; all are found in, though only one is characteristic of, North America. This is Wilson’s Phalarope (Steganopus tricolor), the largest species, which may be known by the membrane of the toes being even and unscalloped. In the adult female in summer the top of the head and neck are white, becoming pearl-gray on the back, a black stripe passes through the eye, continuing broadly down each side of the neck and changing gradually on the lower portion to a dark, rich chestnut, which continues backward along each side of the back, while the fore neck and chest are soft, buffy cinnamon, and a stripe above the eyes, chin, cheeks, throat, and lower parts is pure white. In the male at this season the colors are much duller, and in winter both are plain ashy gray above and white below, with the chest and sides of the breast shaded with pale gray. This species is confined in summer to temperate North America, chiefly in the interior, breeding from northern Illinois and Utah northward to the Saskatchewan region, and migrating south in winter to Brazil and Patagonia. Mr. E. W. Nelson has given a very entertaining ac-count of the summer life of this bird as observed in northern Illinois. They arrive from the south the first part of May and by the middle of the month the love making commences. He says : ” The only demonstrations I have observed during the pairing time consist of a kind of solemn bowing of the head and body; but sometimes, with the head lowered and thrust forward, they will run back and forth in front of the object of their regard. A male is often accompanied by two females at first, but as soon as his choice is made the rejected bird joins her fortunes with some more impressionable swain. The nesting site is usually in some thin tuft of grass on some level spot, but often in an open place concealed by only a few straggling blades of small sedges. The male scratches a shallow depression in the soft earth, which is usually lined with a thin layer of fragments of old grass blades, upon which the eggs, numbering three or four, are deposited about the last of May or the first of June. Incubation is attended to by the male alone. The female, however, keeps near, and is quick to give the alarm upon the approach of danger.”

The Northern Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus) is found throughout the northern portions of the Northern Hemisphere, breeding only in the far north, but migrating in winter to the southern oceans. lt attains a length of seven or eight inches, the female in summer being slaty gray above and white below, the back being striped with buff, the wing-coverts white-tipped, and the chest and sides of the neck rufous; the male is duller. In winter the plumage is largely white or grayish throughout. Mr. Joseph Grinnell found them nesting abundantly in the Kotzebue Sound region of Alaska, the nest being a neatly molded depression in the sod near pools. The Red or Gray Phalarope (Crymophilus fulicarius) is distinguished by its broad, flattened bill, which is somewhat enlarged toward the tip, and by the rich purplish cinnamon-color of the entire lower parts, the winter plumage being largely pearl-gray above and white below. Its distribution is practically the same as that of the last species. During the winter the two last-mentioned forms are found off the coast, never visiting the land unless driven there by storms.