Wilson’s Phalarope – A Whirligig Bird

Female Wilson's PhalaropeFemale Wilson’s Phalarope – Nikon D300, f7.1, 1/1000, ISO 640, -0.3 EV, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light

In early June while in western Montana there was a pair of Wilson’s Phalaropes on a small, privately owned pond near a gravel road foraging for prey that I couldn’t resist photographing. The light wasn’t optimal and because the pond is privately owned I didn’t get out of the pickup to get a lower angle.

As a group phalaropes are collectively known as a “whirligig” because while foraging phalaropes whirl in tight circles that create a vortex in the water which brings small invertebrates to the surface. Imagine seeing flocks of hundreds of thousands phalaropes on the Great Salt Lake twirling & whirling in tight little circles, I can tell you from personal experience that the sight is amazing!

Unlike many other birds where the male is the most colorful in breeding plumage female Wilson’s Phalaropes are larger and more colorful than their male counterparts. Females are the ones who compete for a mate in their beautiful breeding plumage and once they lay their eggs the females leave all the incubation and brood rearing to the male and can go off to find another mate.


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About Mia McPherson

I am a nature lover, wildlife watcher and a bird photographer. I first become serious about bird photography when I moved to Florida in 2004 and it wasn’t long before I was hooked (addicted is more like it). My move to the Salt Lake area of Utah was a great opportunity to continue observing their behavior and to pursue my passion for photographing birds.


  1. A feisty feminist bird! Frivolity aside, she is truly beautiful and to see a flock of them whirling would be amazing. Thank you.

  2. Nice article and info, Mia, thank you. A pretty bird, she looks good in the water. Glad you were able to photograph her.

  3. Very pretty shot! I never seen one up close! Well done, Mia!

  4. COOL! I didn’t know about the whirligig and I’ve seen them do that!

  5. ohh, it s so beautifull this bird, never seen for me, it s a great oportunity for you, bravo mia ☺

  6. Beautiful image of a Wilson’s Phalarope, well photographed.

  7. I became familiar with the term “whirligig” from hand crafted weathervanes. Also “The whirligig beetles” carry this name. Gorgeous plumage Mia.

  8. Merrill Ann Gonzales

    Smart birds! :-) Mia, I learn so much from your blog…. and am thankful to be able to see such great photography revealing so much about the birds you seek out. This bird is lovely.

  9. This is a lovely shot, Mia; and what a beautiful bird. I love her feathering and coloring; quite beautiful. It must truly be an amazing sight to watch thousands of these birds whirling around foraging.

    • Lynn, it is amazing to see thousands of the phalaropes whirling & twirling on the Great Salt Lake. I wish I could get closer to them there but they are more skittish then. Thank you!

  10. Beautiful bird, beautiful shot…interesting info…knew none of it. Love name “whirligig” for feeding manuvers..isn’t it dolphins that do something similar? I’m not sure how to pronounce their name…been told a couple of quite different ways

    • Patty,

      I know Gray Whales use a bubble technique where they circle and blow bubbles to capture prey, I am not sure if dolphins do this too. I’ve heard the name sound like Fhaleropes and Fayleropes. Not sure which one is correct or if they can both be used. They are beautiful shorebirds and I am always grateful to see them. Thanks for commenting

  11. That’s so cool! Their feeding technique on water sounds like an amazing sight to see. Hopefully I will one day!

  12. Very beautiful.
    I have a hard time photographing them.
    And I love the name…..Whirlgig.

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