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The migrating habits of these birds will make you think it’s fall in the middle of July

Living the Wild Life

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Photos: Bill Schiess |

Not many people or birds would say that fall begins around July 10, but it is then that the female Wilson’s phalaropes start heading south, probably to bask on the beaches of salty lakes to change colors. Unlike their human counter-parts, they turn lighter instead of darker, from dark browns to a dirty gray as they sunbathe.

But those hens ought to be raising their chicks at that time, right? Not so. In the phalarope world, the gender roles are reversed from other birds.

In the spring, the females arrive before the males, find the nesting spots, showoff for the males before picking one, lay four eggs for him to sit on, find another male, lay four more eggs for Mr. Second, maybe find a third sucker and lay another four eggs, abandon the nesting area, including their nests, leave all the duties for the males and head for a beach.

This week, I ran into a flock of about 30 Wilson’s phalaropes in a flooded horse pasture near Hamer in what appeared to be mostly adult males with a few juveniles and were accompanied by three females. With a storm threatening, they were very busy harvesting bugs and worms for dinner. Occasionally, they fly to the south side of the flooded pasture and feed to the north.

Phalaropes are one of the earliest fall migrating birds, with the females molting their breeding colors after they have quit laying eggs. They replace their beautiful spring coat for a gray-and-white winter plumage by July 4. They don’t have to be cute for the boys anymore.

Females are also recognizable from the males, as they are about 40 percent larger than the males. One of the preferred beaches for the females to change clothes on surrounds the Great Salt Lake where they will congregate in huge flocks of over 100,000.

After the males have raised the young, they will migrate to a salty lake, usually where the females are lounging around, gaining weight for their long flight to Argentina. Most of the young will create a third migration, joining the adults before they head to South America for the winter.

Brine shrimp and brine flies are a favored food for these weird birds, but they will feed on most insects and crustaceans. Often times they will feed in water just deeper than their legs are and will spin about 60 times in a minute creating a whirlpool to make food available for them. The young learn this technic early as they are responsible for their food immediately after hatching. The men are not very good at feeding the chicks.

During the fall migration, phalaropes rely on the saline lakes as they migrate south along the Pacific shoreline. They have to maintain a large reserve of fat for the last leg of their journey, which is a 56 hour non-stop flight from the Pacific to the wintering lakes high in the Andean Mountains.

In the flock I watched this week, they never stopped eating except for an occasional bath. The three light colored birds appeared to be paired up with a smaller, darker bird as they fed side by side together. I would not venture a guess why, as there are a lot of unknowns about these odd ducks – I mean birds.

They were fun to watch while I spent several hours with them. I had to do something entertaining. During this time of the season, I usually spend a lot of time watching the Burrowing owlets learn their ropes, but not this year. It appears that all of the nests, except for the nests of these owls, have been destroyed by badgers, coyotes or fox. I only know of one den of the 17 that has young ones.

I hope the owls have better luck next year. In the meantime, I will find other interesting activities in the great outdoors.