Wilson's Phalarope: An unusual species

By Dave Hanks

A few miles south of Hill City (in the Camas Prairie) is the CENTENNIAL MARSH. In good water years, it is very productive in the springtime. In fact, it is one of the better Idaho marshes for viewing wetland bird life. The wild camas is displaying its appealing bluish bloom, and the flowers grace the waterways. Indians used to benefit from the marsh by harvesting the camas bulbs – a starchy food source.

An abundance of geese, ducks, raptors (especially Kestrels), and wading birds grace this wetland in the spring of most years. Phalaropes are here in abundance. I know of no place where WILSON’S PHALAROPE is more likely to be seen than here in the Centennial Marsh. The word phalarope means “coot-footed.” It’s a small, wading bird that is adapted for swimming. It swims to feed on the water’s surface. You will see them swimming in a figure “8” pattern. They are stirring up the food source - causing the edibles to rise to the surface.

It is an unusual bird in several ways. It is unusual for females to be more colorful than males. It is unusual because its plumage is brighter in winter than in summer. It is unusual because the female pursues the male in a role reversal. She lays the eggs in a ground nest, close to the water, but the male incubates them. The precocial young then feed themselves. Why the unusual plumage brightness variations? The summer incubating male suggests the reason for the switch: female to male reversal – winter to summer reversal.

We carefully drive the banks along the waterways. We listen for a “swirl”, “twirl”, “whirl”, “whirlgig” call that drops in volume; and we look for a small white-fronted bird with a rust-colored neck and a black eye stripe. We stay in our truck, and if we are careful, the vehicle serves as our blind.

(A female swimming in a figure 8)