Ocracoke nature, flora & fauna

Observed on Ocracoke: a rare Red Phalarope in the village

Red Phalarope. Photo  by P. Vankevich

Red Phalarope. Photo by P. Vankevich

By Peter Vankevich

Many unusual birds have been in the Ocracoke village area over the past month. One of them that showed up today (Feb. 28, 2015) is really rare. An arctic breeding shorebird, Red Phalarope (Phalaropus fulicarius), was wandering in the road at Irvin Garrish Highway near Lighthouse Rd.

Approaching it on my bike, my first impression was: I wonder what a Sanderling is doing in the village and not on the beach. As I got closer, it was evident that it was something different. The bird headed toward the pebble parking lot at Spencer’s Market and settled down. I did not have a field guide, but had something better, my camera, which permitted me to take several photos to help come up with an identification confirmation.

Red Phalarope. Photo  by P. Vankevich

Red Phalarope. Photo by P. Vankevich

I was pretty certain that it was a shorebird in the phalarope family. The challenge was deciding which one it was. In North America, there are three phalarope species: Wilson’s, Red and Red-necked. With the latter two species, as their names imply, when in breeding plumage, identification is relatively easy. In the winter after their molt in early fall, both are rather similarly drab with, gray, white and black plumage that can make identification challenging.

I sent it around to some of birding friends for their opinions. Paul DeAnna, who lives on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC and participates in the Ocracoke Christmas Bird Count every year, weighed in with his opinion: Not much doubt here. I checked five different field guides, including Sibley, National Geographic and the O’Brien Shorebird Guide, and there is nothing I saw in any photo or illustration to indicate this is anything other than a Red Phalarope. Overall structure is Sanderling-like and more robust than Red-necked, with a shorter, thicker bill. The clincher for me is the pale gray mantle–nothing like the mottled appearance of Red-necked. It’s not too far out of range, but of course should be miles offshore. Must have been blown in on a storm. Congratulations on this rare find.

Kent Fiala, editor of the Carolina Bird Club website, replied, “I would call it Red. Unmarked gray back, not a needle bill. Red is probably the most likely species, as well.”

Jeff Pippen, who has an excellent website on North Carolina’s flora and fauna, made this observation: Yes, that’s a Red Phalarope.  Poor thing must be sick since it’s not bouncing in the water along the edge of the Gulf Stream with its brethren now.  Red Phalaropes are the expected winter species here in NC and are relatively common offshore but fairly rare onshore.

Phalarope Ocracoke  2015-02-28 15.56.01

Red Phalarope in Spencer’s Market parking lot. Photo by P. Vankevich

Phalaropes are unusual in that the female’s plumage is brighter and more striking than males. It is believed that a female’s drab plumage for many bird species is useful for concealment during their long period of incubating their eggs.

What is more unusual is that Red Phalaropes and Red-necked Phalaropes, unlike other shorebirds, winter well out to sea. So to see one on land this time of year and especially in the village was highly unusual.

I thought it was interesting that it chose the pebble parking area at Spencer’s Mark to rest. This was probably as close to its summer arctic habitat it could find.

Red Phalarope in breeding plumage. Photo courtesy  of Wikipedia Commons

Red Phalarope in breeding plumage. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

So why was it here? Possibly it is a sick and weakened bird that lacked the strength to resist wind and was blown onto the island. It did not appear to be injured and after more than an hour of observation, it flew off, perhaps back to sea.

Islanders Susse Wright, Maria Logan, Sue Dayton, Norma Sigal and Patty Johnson Plyler as well as her visiting birding sister, Barbara Rice, and our expert hawk and falcon observers, Gil and Jann Randell all got an opportunity to see it.