Red-necked Phalarope at Bald Knob, Allegheny County, PA
Few shorebirds, if any, can match the beauty of the Red-necked Phalarope in spring. They winter offshore in tropical
southern oceans and breed in low Arctic latitudes across the northern continents. The bulk of the North American population
migrates through the western United States and Canada, often occurring in flocks numbering in the thousands, especially in
the fall. In eastern North America including Pennsylvania, they are rare but regular, scattered migrants, usually occurring
as singles or pairs and more often seen in the fall than the spring.
So, any opportunity to see these remarkable shorebirds decked out in their spring plumage in Pennsylvania is a special
treat. On May 19, 2006, the pair pictured below was found feeding on the famous Bald Knob Pond in the Imperial Grasslands.
At least one bird remained on the 20th, but likely both were still present.
Phalaropes are a rare exception in the avian world, in that females are more brightly colored than the males. Additionally,
in another instance of avian role reversal, the duty of attending the eggs and the newly hatched young is left solely to the
male; the female vacates the scene after the eggs are laid and leave her offspring and her mate behind. There are three
species of Phalarope worldwide, and all three exhibit this reverse bahavior.
In the pictures below, both birds are stunningly pattered, of course, but note the brighter and more extensive red on
the female's neck. She is also larger and generally more cleanly marked than her male counterpart. In short, her
plumage seems to "pop" just a little more than the male's. Three other important points for distinguishing the male
from the female (since "pop" is a relative distinction at best) are the subtle but obvious white and rufous supercilium
displayed by the male which joins with the rufous neck, the white he displays in front of the eyes, and his more strongly
pattered mantle and scapular feathers. By comparison the female has but a single short white line above the eye.
The difference in supercilium is the easiest and most reliable field mark to distingush the two in spring.
|Red-necked Phalarope female (alternate) - Bald Knob 19-May-06
|Red-necked Phalarope male (alternate) - Bald Knob 19-May-06
These two represent at least the second and probably the third record for this species in Allegheny County, and the first
spring record. The first record was of a bird grounded during Hurricane Fran on September 7, 1996; while this bird was
originally identified as a Red-necked, there was some disagreement as to the ID based on the pictures that were submitted,
with some feeling that the bird was more likely a Red Phalarope. The issue is still probably not fully resolved.
The second record (and the first truly indisputable record) was of a juvenile that was present August 26-27, 2002. The
two birds above represent the third record, and my personal second for the county.
Incredibly, all three records of this species for Allegheny County come from the exact same little pond in the Imperial
Grasslands, which measures not more than maybe 500 to 600 feet along its long axis, but which has produced some of the most
incredible shorebirding in southwestern Pennsylvania over the last 10 years.