A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

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


Small numbers of Red Phalaropes may linger through the winter in Sonoma County, but we see this bird--if we see it at all--chiefly during spring and fall migration, mostly during the latter. Autumn migrants can start arriving as early as late-July, but the bulk arrives in late September. Most have passed through by mid-November, but migration in some years can extend into early December. During the shorter spring migration, birds arrive mid-April and are mostly gone a month later. Usually most numerous October through mid-November. Bodega Bay locations such as Bodega Head and the Doran Beach Entrance Pond have typically been good places to see this bird. Having said that, Red Phalarope spends most of its time far out on the open ocean where large flocks may be seen from boats. As a result, although Red Phalarope may be visible from the coast and occasionally seen in brackish coastal marshy areas, it is much less commonly observed in Sonoma County than its close relative Red-necked Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus). Accidental at inland locations. Feeds on small crustaceans and plankton. Flits about ceaselessly, looking for food. Can be remarkably tame, allowing approach within a few feet if distractedly foraging. Breeds in the extreme north of Alaska and Canada. Winters mostly off Central and South American Pacific coast. Commonly in small flocks (sometimes large flocks) and may form mixed flocks with Red-necked Phalarope. Referred to as “Grey Phalarope” in Britain.

Very small shorebird (a little more than 8 inches). Striking in breeding plumage, with a chestnut-red neck, breast, and underparts, black cap, and yellow (black-tipped) bill, but we normally see Red Phalarope (when we see it) in non-breeding plumage, as shown above. Non-breeding birds are mostly white and grey, but with black at the back of the head and nape, and black around and behind the eye. Black bill (but may show a little yellow at the base). Primary tips often show black at the rear end of the bird. Somewhat darker on the back than on the flanks, but generally a silvery grey. Underparts white. Juveniles similar to winter adults, but washed with buff at the neck and upper breast. Feathers of the back and wing coverts also fringed with buff, giving young birds a scalloped look. Juveniles have a full black cap, whereas adults are grey or blackish mostly toward the back of the head.

May be distinguished from the similar-looking Red-necked Phalarope by its somewhat larger size and stockier build, its heavier bill (Red-necked Phalarope has a longer, very slender bill), and the plain grey of its upper parts, where Red-necked Phalarope shows much more distinct patterning (photo below). Black or dark grey on the head extends up to the crown in Red-necked Phalarope, but it is confined to the back of the head and nape in Red Phalarope.

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, which makes them especially buoyant). This "spinning top" behavior is believed to create vortices that draw food items (zooplankton) into range. 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. 235

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. 247

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

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 168

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. 120

O’Brien, Crossley, and Karlson, The Shorebird Guide, 2006, pp. 11, 221-224, 449-451

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

Paulson, Shorebirds of North America: The Photographic Guide, 2005, pp. 344-348

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. 286

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 163

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Red 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 Phalarope, Doran Beach, Bodega Bay, December 6, 2012

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

Note longer, thinner bill; extensive patterning on back

Red Phalarope

Phalaropus fulicaria

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

EBird reported occurrence in Sonoma County