A male (front) and female Wilson’s Phalarope in breeding plumage at Camas Prairie WMA near Fairfield, Idaho.
We stared long and hard at the bird in our binoculars at Camas Prairie WMA near Fairfield. It was definitely a shorebird—quick movements, longish pointed black bill, long legs, but with rather plain markings. With Audubon phone apps and a Sibley Field Guide to Western Birds in hand, we thumbed through the thumbnail images of all the shorebirds and could not find it. In frustration, I finally just photographed it and moved on, hoping a better birder would help me identify it.
A bit later, we saw another bird we had never seen. This time though we could quickly identify it as a female Wilson’s phalarope, with her black bandit’s eye stripe that stretched down the long neck, white chin and eyebrow stripe, chestnut throat and darker chestnut back and gray crown that also extended down the back of the neck. As we looked through the other Wilson’s phalarope photos in the Audubon app, it suddenly dawned on us that the unidentified bird, the plain one, was the male Wilson’s phalarope. In breeding plumage, it was pretty, but lacked the flamboyance of the female.
This was just the opposite of what one usually finds in the bird world. As a rule, the male is the more gaudily colored and the female plainer or even camouflaged. There is a good reason for that. In general, it is the males that fight for the right to breed and must attract the females with their showy plumage and displays. The female, on the other hand, establishes the nest and takes much of the risk of detection by a predator when she is preoccupied with her eggs, often for three weeks or more. Being camouflaged is good insurance against getting eaten.
As we read more about the Wilson’s phalarope, we found that this coloration reversal has its origin in behavior. In a mating style called polyandry, with Wilson’s phalaropes, it is the male who tends the nest and raises the chicks. Females do the courting and the fighting, starting nests with several males during the mating season.
Wilson’s phalaropes are dainty little birds, smaller than a killdeer. Like other shorebirds, they are active feeders, constantly on the move as they hunt and probe for prey. Wilson’s phalaropes though, are often decidedly un-shorebird-like in their manner of hunting. They are at home in deeper water, swimming with the help of lobed toes instead of walking along the waterline. They will often swim in tight circles, spinning quickly enough to corral prey items and even creating a vortex that sucks prey off the bottom. They are also stealth hunters, stretching out nearly flat to peck insects off the surface of the water or even from the air.
I hoped to get a decent photo of a female and sat down on the bank of a canal to wait. It wasn’t long before phalaropes began swimming by, oftentimes surprisingly close. They were true to their reputation as very tolerant birds, making them a joy to watch.
It would be enough to say that Wilson’s phalaropes are cool birds worth watching for their unique behavior. There is a larger lesson though—just when you think you have nature figured out, that you understand her rules, she throws you a curve such as polyandry. In nature, apparently rules are made to be broken.
Help Idaho Wildlife
When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates.
C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles!
See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live.
Wildlife License Plates
Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.
No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.
Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.
Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program. Go figure.
"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson
That is embarrassing but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.
Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.
Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.
"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman
"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.
To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version
Copies are also available at:
Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)
Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls
Harriman State Park, Island Park
Museum of Idaho
Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming
Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah
Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho