A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


While a small number of Red-necked Phalaropes linger into the early winter months in Sonoma County, we see this bird chiefly during spring and fall migration, and mostly during the latter. Birds can start arriving as early as mid-July, but the bulk of autumn migrants arrives in early August. Most have passed through by the end of October. During the shorter spring migration, birds arrive mid-April and are mostly gone a month or so later. Mid-August through late September is perhaps the best window to see Red-necked Phalarope in the county. Shollenberger Park and Bodega Bay locations such as Bodega Head and the Doran Beach Entrance Pond have typically been good spots to see this bird. Spends much of its time far out on the open ocean where large flocks may be seen from boats, but when passing through our area, Red-necked Phalarope may also be seen on the ocean at the coast, in brackish coastal marshy areas, or even inland on freshwater bodies. I've observed this bird at the Bodega Farm Pond and well inland on the Russian River. Feeds on small crustaceans, plankton. Flits about ceaselessly, looking for food. Can be remarkably tame, allowing close approach. Breeds in arctic and subarctic tundra from Alaska to Newfoundland. Winters off Mexican Pacific coast. Commonly in small flocks (sometimes large flocks) and may form mixed flocks with Red Phalarope.

Tiny shorebird (under 8 inches). Striking in breeding plumage, with chestnut-red at sides of the neck and with buff streaks on the back (photo above), but handsome also in the plumages we normally see (below). In non-breeding plumage, birds appear mostly white and grey, but may be distinguished from the larger, similar-looking Wilson's Phalarope (Phalaropus tricolor) by the distinctly patterned back (Wilson’s is plain grey), as well as by their smaller size and finer bill. Red Phalarope (Phalaropus fulicarius) is also a somewhat larger bird, its bill is heavier, and, like Wilson’s Phalarope, it is mostly plain grey in winter plumage. Red-necked and Red Phalarope share the black mask in non-breeding plumage, a feature much less prominent in Wilson’s. Thus, Red-necked Phalarope in non-breeding plumage is characterized by its small size; fine, pointed bill, black mask, and patterned grey back.

In flight, Red-necked Phalarope (and Red Phalarope) shows a distinct white wing stripe and a black central tail stripe, both lacking in Wilson's Phalarope, which has a white rump patch, a very pale grey tail, and plain grey wings. The masked look caused by the black around and behind the eye is pronounced in non-breeding Red-necked Phalarope and Red Phalarope, barely suggested in Wilson's,  which looks more like it has a smudgy eyeline with a white eyebrow. Juvenile Red-necked Phalaropes look like winter adults but tend to have more extensive markings on the crown, they may show buff on the breast, neck, and nape, which fades as they mature (so various intermediate stages are possible; photos below), and they have buff fringes on the back feathers. Juveniles have a blacker look in the dark areas than non-breeding adults, which tend to be greyer.

Phalaropes have a characteristic feeding habit that allows them to be identified at long distances; although they may occasionally forage while walking along shore, they usually feed on water, spinning themselves in circles, sitting high on the water (their dense breast plumage traps air, making them especially buoyant). This "spinning top" behavior is believed to create vortices that draw food items (zooplankton) into range. Phalaropes (all three species) are unusual in that sexual roles are reversed. Only males have a brood patch and incubate eggs. The females abscond as soon as males start sitting.

Note that older sources will list this bird as Northern Phalarope in the genus Lobipes. Sometimes referred to as Hyperborean Phalarope. Once thought to be quite distinct taxonomically, phalaropes are today believed to be a subgroup of the sandpipers.

Trivia: 1. Phalaropes (all three species) are unusual in that sexual roles are reversed. Only males have a brood patch and incubate eggs. The females abscond as soon as males start sitting. 2. "Phalarope" comes from the Greek for "Coot's foot," according to Fix and Bezener, referring to the webbed toes of the Phalarope, which resemble those of the Coot.

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 59

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 234

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 192

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, pg. 206

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, p. 245

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 134

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 167

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 181

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 190

Kaufman, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, 2011, pp. 210-241 (general notes on shorebird ID), p. 222

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, p. 119

O’Brien, Crossley, and Karlson, The Shorebird Guide, 2006, pp. 214, 217-220, 222, 223, 447-449

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 33

Paulson, Shorebirds of North America: The Photographic Guide, 2005, pp. 340-343

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, pp. 162, 164

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 152, 160

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 136

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 173

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 287

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 432

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Red-necked Phalarope (no entry)



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


Red-necked Phalarope (juvenile), Doran Beach Entrance Pond, Bodega Bay, August  25, 2012

Note hints of buff on neck and upper breast, buff and rust in scapulars

For comparison: Red Phalarope (non-breeding), Doran Beach, Bodega Bay, December 6, 2012

Note comparatively short, thick bill; plain grey back

Red-necked Phalarope (late juvenile), Doran Beach, Bodega Bay, September 5, 2012

Red-necked Phalarope (breeding), Doran Beach Entrance Pond, Bodega Bay, May 25, 2013

Red-necked Phalarope

Phalaropus lobatus

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated August 3, 2013

EBird reported occurrence in Sonoma County