A massive and likely unprecedented ornithological event
Though, as usual, I didn’t have any actual birding plans, my weekend somehow ended up a triumphant birding success. On Saturday, while retrieving something from the car, I heard a suspicious chip note from the yard of my neighbor across the street. She often gets better warblers than I see in my yard, and I suspected this was a rare southern species I’d never seen in our neighborhood. Indeed, when I tracked it down, it was a spectacular male Hooded Warbler, the only one of its kind on Cape Cod this weekend, and a really satisfying tick for my neighborhood list. But this special visitor was soon to be forgotten in the wake of a massive and likely unprecedented ornithological event that began on Sunday morning, instantly drawing the attention of every local birder.
On Sunday, as we recovered from early soccer and contemplated an exotic, off-Cape excursion, I started getting text messages about a lot of phalaropes – a LOT of phalaropes - off some east facing beaches. The winds were high out of the southeast, and apparently strong enough to bring these odd little ocean-going sandpipers in from the continental shelf, which is usually as close as they get to land around here. In light of this new information, I requested a detour to Nauset Beach, which was granted, allowing me several surreal minutes amidst a swirling storm of Red Phalaropes. I had never experienced anything like it, and probably never will again.
Peering through the fog I saw hundreds on the water, riding the high surf, while others flew recklessly against the stiff wind, some almost hitting me in the head. Some got blown back toward the marsh while others ended up over the parking lot. Large numbers were reported from North Truro to Nauset and probably beyond, who knows how many there were altogether. The “wreck” continued into Monday morning, with some reported well away from the ocean in marshes and even parking lot puddles. The unsung heroes from Wild Care were on hand to rescue any injured birds, of which there were several.
Phalaropes are delightful oddities in several ways. They’re not rare, but people almost never see them. They are sandpipers, but don’t hang out on the sand, or really any kind of land, very much at all. They breed by Arctic tundra pools for about a month, then head out to sea – it’s thought that Red Phalaropes winter on the continental shelf off West Africa and South America. They often feed by spinning in frenzied circles on the water, creating a vortex to bring invertebrate prey to the surface. They have funny little lobed toes, like a coot – in fact “phalarope” apparently means “coot footed” in Latin.
Also, one sex is brightly colored while the other is drab and takes care of the kids, a familiar ornithological dichotomy you might think. But in phalaropes, it’s the ladies with the colorful plumage – the pretty, promiscuous females fight over the relatively plain males, mate with them, then leave the men to tend the eggs and chicks alone while they’re off to pick a new male. Phalarope society is very progressive.
I was lucky to get back to the phalarope wreck last night after the rain, with the sun at that perfect low angle for photography. In the better viewing conditions, it was easier to see that there were probably a couple of thousand Red Phalaropes, and lesser numbers of Red-necked Phalaropes, still blanketing the surf at Nauset, just off the beach. Every now and then one would flutter up to the high beach to sit tamely, take a breather, and preen a bit – a photographer’s dream.
Big wrecks of thousands of phalaropes have happened before, but the fact that this has gone on at least three days may be unprecedented. Get yourself to an east facing beach pronto, because at least some of these charmingly eccentric sandpipers are probably still out there, and you’ll not likely get another chance at something like this ever again.