Wilson’s Phalarope – A Whirligig Bird

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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.



  1. Elephant's Child June 26, 2013 at 2:40 pm

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

    • Mia McPherson June 26, 2013 at 3:27 pm

      Thanks EC, they are fun little shorebirds and amusing to watch too.

  2. Myer Bornstein June 26, 2013 at 7:37 am

    most excellent

  3. Sally Wood June 25, 2013 at 7:17 pm

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

    • Mia McPherson June 26, 2013 at 5:24 am

      Thanks Sally, I’m glad she and the other phalarope stuck around to be photographed.

  4. Eileen June 25, 2013 at 3:55 pm

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

  5. Sherry in MT June 25, 2013 at 3:45 pm

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

  6. eric c11 June 25, 2013 at 2:33 pm

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

    • Mia McPherson June 26, 2013 at 5:17 am

      Thanks Eric, Phalaropes are beautiful birds

  7. Bob Bushell June 25, 2013 at 1:33 pm

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

  8. M. Firpi June 25, 2013 at 11:10 am

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

    • Mia McPherson June 25, 2013 at 12:49 pm

      Thanks Maria, I remember whirligig beetles too.

  9. Merrill Ann Gonzales June 25, 2013 at 11:10 am

    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.

    • Mia McPherson June 25, 2013 at 12:48 pm

      Thanks Merrill, I guess the female phalaropes are smart! Thanks for your wonderful comment.

  10. Lynn Koch June 25, 2013 at 7:50 am

    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.

    • Mia McPherson June 25, 2013 at 12:47 pm

      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!

  11. patty chadwick June 25, 2013 at 5:45 am

    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

    • Mia McPherson June 25, 2013 at 12:46 pm


      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

  12. Sam Brunson June 25, 2013 at 5:24 am

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

    • Mia McPherson June 25, 2013 at 12:42 pm

      Sam, their feeding technique is amazing to see and I hope you get to see it soon.

  13. judy watson June 25, 2013 at 5:16 am

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

    • Mia McPherson June 25, 2013 at 12:42 pm

      Judy, I have a hard time too along the causeway but some times on smaller freshwater ponds they are easier to get close to. Thanks for commenting.

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