by Elsa Watson, West Sound Wildlife Shelter Development Coordinator, September 12, 2012, 2:09 p.m.
A little after 2 a.m. on August 24, as the last ferry from Seattle was docking at the Bainbridge Island terminal, a little wading bird called a phalarope sat immobile on the car deck, preventing cars from unloading.
Sleepy drivers and ferry workers paused, perplexed, until one of the ferry staff scooped up the bird gently in a towel and called West Sound Wildlife Shelter.
It turned out to be a red-necked phalarope—the first seen at West Sound—a pelagic bird that’s similar to a sand piper or turnstone but not often seen here, at least in part because they spend most of their time away from shore at sea. This bird was young and didn’t fly off the car deck because it hadn’t yet learned how to fly. It is unclear how it got there, but it’s possible that it was flushed from its night roosting area by the noise of the ferry or the vibrations of the docking boat.
Fortunately, the young bird wasn’t injured—only misplaced. Our staff and volunteers got to work right away with providing food for it. Phalaropes have an interesting hunting and feeding style: They swim in a small circle until they create a little whirlpool that brings up plankton and other bits of marine life. Our team had to create an environment for this bird in which that behavior was possible, building a small pool with tasty treats (bloodworms and frozen marine shrimp) hidden in the water.
Once it had proven that it could eat in the traditional phalarope way, the little bird had to learn to fly before it could be safely released. For a while the bird soared around its enclosure until it got up the nerve to attempt a landing. The timing of this first flight was excellent, since it meant the phalarope could be released in time to migrate south with its flock.
Eleven days after it was brought into the Shelter, Mike Pratt, our director of wildlife services, took the phalarope back to the tide flats near the ferry dock for its release. Once on the beach, the little bird ran out into the water, only to be caught by an incoming wave and washed back. Undaunted, it ran out again, and again was washed back. After a little more trial and error, it took a hopping flight over the waves and, at last, landed in the calm water beyond, ready to swim. We wish it luck on its journey south!
As a species, phalaropes have an intriguing approach to gender roles. For phalaropes, it’s the female that’s large and colorful. The female is the one who pursues the mate of her choice and will get into fights with other females over territory and males. And when the eggs are laid, she takes flight with the other females and heads south, leaving the males to sit on the eggs. The young birds leave the nest after only one day and begin learning to swim and forage for food. When their flight feathers develop, they’re able to take their first flights. About two weeks after the eggs hatch, the males follow the females migrating south.
Contact West Sound Wildlife at 206-855-9057.
Learn about Elsa Watson’s new book Dog Days.
Photos courtesy of Dottie Tison.