The Red-necked Phalarope: One of the littlest birds that could


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This is one of the funnest little birds that I know of to watch, and one of the more remarkable. I often see them on the bays near where I live during as they migrate between the arctic where they breed down to the open oceans far to the south. They migrate across most of the continent, so there’s a chance each of us has seen them, although they prefer routes that give them access to wetlands, mudflats, shallow rivers and lakes.

They are a shorebird at times, though most often I see them swimming in shallow water

Today I am sharing images of non-breeding birds, that is juveniles that were born earlier in the year and adults that I have already shed their colorful party clothes. This is how I know them best, when they are heading south, and stop over for a little fuel in larger numbers. Usually I see them in shallower water, only a few centimeters (3 inches) up to 50 centimeters (16 inches) deep, and very close to shore (usually within a few meters). This always seems remarkable to me, seeing them in such a shallow protected environment, since they winter on the open ocean, with no land in sight. And they are such a small waterbird, only 18cm (7 in) in length.To be such a size and bobbing in the vastness of the sea seems so surprising to me.

They are a quick bird, always in constant motion

To see them is to see motion. I have never really seen one be still. They are quick and lively. When they swim, they put their whole body into it, with their heads bobbing to the motion the entire time, pumping forward and back. Suddenly they give a fast jab with their beak or they lunge forward and they have their prey, (an insect or small crustacean) and swallow it in a single quick bite.

Getting ready to lunge for a prize tidbit

I’ve never known anyone to have seen this bird and not enjoy watching it. They are rather distinct in their motions and habits, easy to identify as a phalarope just by how they move.

A very focused bird

All of these photographs were taken from kayak. The Red-necked Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus</em) is a fairly fearless bird where kayaks are concerned, as long as you keep your motions very slow and deliberate, no sudden movements. If you watch where they are swimming, and can guess where they will be heading, it can be possible to position yourself that they will swim right by, in close quarters, as long as you don't really move. The only hard part when they are that close in is to keep the lens trained on them, as they are such a quick and dart little bird.

To imagine that this “cute”, diminutive bird can migrate so many thousands upon thousands of miles and the live and prosper on the open ocean will always continue to amaze me

About Galen Leeds Photography

Nature and wildlife photographer, exploring the world on his feet and from his kayak. Among other genres, he is one of the leading kayak photographers in Northern California. To learn more about him, visit him on his website-
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9 Responses to The Red-necked Phalarope: One of the littlest birds that could

  1. Fascinating. This little bird seems like it’s the hummingbird of waters.

  2. john granatir says:

    I love these little birds. Went up to Mono Lake one time to see the migration. I don’t see them too frequently on T-Bay, but occasionally have seen a few out of Nick’s Cove and up around the entrance.

    • Mostly I see these birds in the White Gulch area, and perhaps a mile or two north and south of there. Occasionally I will see them on the Marshall side, but not as regularly. I have also seen them in very large numbers in the Giacomini Wetlands and on Drake’s Estero. Usually you have to time it just right to see them, as they are usually only around for a few weeks (sometimes up to five or six) during their migration. Always a joy to see them though

  3. Pat Bean says:

    This is a feminist’s bird. The female wears brighter feathers and lets the male do most of the chick raising. I watched them fuel up for migration every year on Great Salt Lake when I lived in Utah. I love this blog and your photos. Thanks so much for sharing.

    • Thanks Pat.

      Most decidedly a feminist bird. The male stays home and sits the nest, is smaller, and is less colorful. I’m glad you got to see them getting ready for the big move, as they are such a joy to watch.

  4. jaurbanphoto says:

    i wish i lived near water… normal “land” birds don’t have quite the same personality. these photo’s are all amazing! especially the one with two playing in the water that’s light blue… love that one!

  5. Beautiful photos, Galen! So tiny and cute. This is the first time I have seen and read about them. Thanks for posting!

  6. Maggie L R says:

    well done,and from a kayak? you have very steady hands. how do you do it.

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