Friday, May 14, 2010

At Last, Shorebirds (Wilson's Phalarope and More)

Dave came home yesterday excited about a report on the bird listserv about a rare sighting of a Western Sandpiper near Northfield, so off we went. The report area was on 320th St., northwest of Northfield and just east of I-35. We didn't end up seeing the rare-for-here Western (Dave reports being 0-for-19 on unusual-sighting stake-outs), but we finally got to see some little peeps and lots of other shorebirds in a spot other than Lake Byllesby.

In a farm field with a large rain puddle, we saw this large, pale gray shorebird, shown in the next three shots, which looks like a Willet. The smaller bird behind it in one shot is probably a Lesser Yellowlegs. Lesser Yellowlegs themselves are not small birds -- about 10.5" body length to the Willet's 15" (the Greater Yellowlegs is closer to the Willet in size). I've only seen a Willet once before, at the northern coast of California during late winter.

Below is a short video clip taken through the spotting scope of a diversity of shorebirds at a farm pond a bit further down the road. There are plenty of Yellowlegs (mostly Lessers?) and also a number of small peeps that we think were Least Sandpipers.

Next is a really fun clip of a Wilson's Phalarope (a new "life bird" for me) exhibiting phalaropes' characteristic feeding behavior: spinning in the water to create a vortex which brings up yummy edibles from below. It's not great video, but the subject is very cool. (I think that this new camera is not going to be a good fit for the photography I like to do. Even with the powerful zoom I can't really take good photos of small distant creatures, and I can't fit it to the lens of the spotting scope, so I always get vignetting around the edges.)

For both of these videos, you may want to click the "full screen" icon at the lower right.

Here's a startling fact about Wilson's Phalaropes from National Geographic's Complete Birds of North America: "Adult females are the earliest fall migrants, with the first arrivals [at their fall destinations, I presume] in early June." Shorebirds come north and inland to breed, and as soon as they are done, it is time for "Fall" migration! For most breeds, fall doesn't come quite so early, at least not for the females. Here is a longer explanation from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology:
But what really sets phalaropes apart is the reversal of gender roles from the typical avian pattern. Before the males show up at the breeding grounds each spring, female Wilson's Phalaropes arrive at shallow freshwater marshes and wet meadows from southern Yukon Territory southward to central Nevada and eastward to the Great Lakes. ...

Females lay eggs in shallow depressions that they usually scrape within 100 yards of the shoreline. The males complete the nest lining and a concealing canopy of grasses after the eggs are laid. Then the males settle into caring for the nestlings until they fledge.

...Females leave the breeding territories first, from early June to early July, followed by the males and, lastly, immature birds
So this is a bird where the larger, more colorful female pretty much lays the eggs and takes off, leaving the rest of chick-rearing responsibilities to Daddy.

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