Tag Archives: Shorebirds

Watch Out for Phalaropes!

At 55 grams, phalaropes are among the smaller shorebirds that wash up on COASST beaches. Despite their small size, phalaropes are long-distance migrants that breed in the Arctic and head south of the equator in winter. In the lower 48, COASSTers are most apt to find a phalarope in the Fall-Winter during the southward migration; that is, right now!

Easy to identify given their distinctive multi-lobed feet, these tiny birds use their toes to help them gather food by paddling in a tight circle around and around until they produce a vortex (like a small cyclone) underneath their spinning body which sucks up zooplankton and brings prey within reach of the long needle-like bill. Lucky kayakers out for a fall paddle along tidal rips can be surrounded by hundreds of spinning birds intent on fattening up before continuing south.


Photos of Red Phalaropes by COASST bird verifier, Charlie Wright. Notice the dark smudge around the eye and the tiny multi-lobed toes. The broader, more triangle-tipped bill shown here separates the Red Phalarope from the slightly smaller and lance-billed Red-necked Phalarope.

The vast majority of the phalaropes COASSTers encounter are Red Phalaropes. A smattering of Red-necked Phalaropes have also been found over the years.

The graph shows the chance of finding a beached phalarope along the outer coast of Washington and Oregon throughout the year. It is the month-averaged (or mean) encounter rate in carcasses per kilometer. The black line shows the seasonal pattern using all of the COASST data, from 2001 to 2015. The smaller red line takes out the winter (November to January) of two years (2002-2003, and 2005-2006) when there were wrecks of phalaropes. What’s interesting is that even with the big years removed, the pattern in time is virtually the same.

With the peak years excluded (focus on the red line), the chance of finding a phalarope is highest in December – but the average survey would have to be 60 kilometers to have a serious chance of finding one. That’s a lot of walking!


The phalarope (Red Phalaropes, Red-necked Phalaropes and unknown phalaropes) baseline (carcasses encountered per kilometer) calculated across the “average” beach in Oregon and Washington outer coast locations. Data span 2001 to 2015.

In some years, Red Phalaropes seem to run out of gas, and they can be found in abundance if your monthly survey happens during the “carcass-fall” of these tiniest of birds. In 2002-2003, a phalarope wreck lasted from November through January. Carcasses were found all along Washington and Oregon coastlines. The carcass-fall that year was 60-100 times normal and some extreme sites found up to ~15 birds per kilometer (or 1,000 times the non-wreck normal peak!!) A smaller wreck occurred in the winter of 2005-2006. It started slightly later (in December), and fewer COASSTers recorded birds, even though the total number of COASST sites was higher.


Phalarope “finds” by COASSTers during the winter of 2002/03 and 2005/06. Bubbles are situated over the COASST survey location, and the size of the bubble is indicative of the number of phalaropes found per km of beach surveyed. Bubbles are color coded by month.

This year we’ve been getting wind of disoriented, emaciated phalaropes coming to shore in British Columbia. Although initially speculated to be associated with an oil spill, birders from Ketchikan, Alaska to Monterey Bay, California have reported seeing numbers of these birds unusually close to shore. And the COASST data have spiked up. Take a look at the very latest COASST data compared to those earlier wreck years.


The timeseries of phalarope (Red Phalarope, Red-necked Phalarope and unknown phalarope) monthly encounter rates from 2001 to the present. Bars represent the average encounter rate across surveys performed in that month across Oregon and Washington outer coast locations. The black line and yellow shading represent the seasonal baseline encounter rate and its range, respectively, calculated across all years excluding the winter of 2002/03 and 2005/06.

With all of the changes in the coastal ecosystems of Alaska and the lower 48, we’re not sure what to expect this winter. But here’s the early warning for outer coast COASSTers in the lower 48 to be on the lookout for phalaropes, particularly following storms.

It’s all in the Foot(print)

On the Long Beach Peninsula last weekend, Jane and students Qi, Summer, Lauren, Angeline and Loren checked out the beaches for birds and marine debris. Expecting to see hundreds of Cassin’s Auklets (a lone Pacific Loon, that’s it) they turned their attention to other beach curiosities. Here’s a look:

Domestic dog print. But wait! How do we know it's not a coyote? Front nails are spread far apart (coyotes nearly touch)

Domestic dog print. But wait! How do we know it’s not a coyote? Two front toes (and nails) are spread far apart (coyotes’ nails nearly touch).

Hoof print; most force on forward (leading) edge.

Hoof print. Most force on forward (leading) edge.

Larid (gull) print. Bird is walking towards the top of the photo.

Larid (gull) print. Bird is walking towards the top of the photo.

Crow foot. Toes are segmented. With fast movement, front nails make drag marks in sand.

American Crow foot. Toes are segmented. With fast movement, nails catch in the sand, extending straight lines from front toes.

Three-toed Shorebird. So tiny!

Three-toed Shorebird. So tiny!

What’s Washed In

Hope that you’re all enjoying Spring! We’ve had a lot of interesting photos in our inbox, including some iconic species. Here’s a look at what’s washed!

MalelN 2014 SUSC 778bCalifornia-to-Washington: Look at that bright red/orange foot! Front toes are webbed, hind toe is lobed: Waterfowl: Diving Ducks. All dark wing and no white plumage – Surf Scoter or Black Scoter. (In the Alaska Guide, without a head, we’ll turn to the Wing Key… see below) For the Black Scoter, the last primary is much shorter – not the case here – “normal” wing with the last primary longest – SUSC! (Found by Sara and Peter, Humboldt, California)

Alaska: Dark upperwing (trust us on this). Upperwing simply dark, and underwing linings not white. Wing chord is 24cm, and wing is “simply dark” no outercuts, innercuts, smudges, bright primaries or short outer primaries. NOW we can use the foot. Harlequin Duck, shearwaters, Northern Fulmar, Black Oystercatcher, Surf Scoter  – only one with a redish foot – SUSC!

Wa-atch 2014 0327b

All regions: Okay! This one is certainly recognizable, but let’s go through the steps to verify our answer: four free toes, 3 in front and 1 in back. No toes fused, and the tarsus is less than 150 mm. We definitely have claws here (= nails as long as toes = talons)! The bare tarsus tells us that this is a raptor (as opposed to an owl) – a Bald Eagle. (found by Paul and Sally, North Coast, Washington)

OcnPrkSth 2014 0409 DUNL 079 a

OcnPrkSth 2014 0409 DUNL 079 b
All regions: This is a great example of countershading (dark on back, light on tummy).  Looking closely at this tiny wing: white stripe along the mantle edge when the wing is outstretched and the innermost secondaries are predominantly white. With a wing chord of 12 cm, this is a Dunlin (rare in Alaska). The long (39 mm), droopy-tipped bill separate this DUNL from two other common shorebirds: Sanderling and Western Sandpiper. (found by Paul and Janet, South Coast, Washington)

Dead Bird ID Terminology

One of the challenges of making the COASST Beached Birds Field Guides was avoiding much of the technical jargon found in other scientific resources. So where possible, we prefer “overlapping” to “scutellate” and “four webbed” to “totipalmate.” Those words can be fun to know, but they have no place in a guide for bringing clarity to bird identification.

With bird ID, there are a few terms that are necessary in order to be specific. The glossary in the COASST Field Guide helps with these, but we still field questions about some of the more obscure ones. Here is a closer look at some of the more challenging terms:

Puffin “stripe” or “smudge”

Unique to puffins and the closely related Rhinoceros Auklet, this is the subtly paler coloration on the leading edge of the wing. Sometimes this can look like the feathers are “worn away”, but it’s actually a plumage pattern.


White spots surrounded by dark, found on the outer wing feathers (primaries) of adult gulls (but not kittiwakes) are referred to as windows.


Many gull species have white tips to their primary feathers, which we call “fingernails.”


When the secondary feathers are colored differently from the rest of the wing they are referred to as a speculum. Often these are iridescent. This term is commonly applied to ducks, for example this Northern Shoveler wing with a green speculum. Presence and coloration of the speculum can be the key to getting that waterfowl wing down to species.

Wing stripe

This is an area of contrast going through the middle of the wing, with darker or lighter color both before and after. In shorebirds, this is often a white “stripe.” Pigeons show a dark wing stripe.

Inner cut/outer cut primaries

Some birds have oddly shaped edges to their outer primary feathers. The leading edge of the feather may taper gradually towards the tip. This is called an outer cut feather. When the tapering is present on the trailing edge of the feather, it is called inner cut. This can be a good way to tell those cormorant wings from scoter wings!