News & Features

Red Phalarope – Fall 2016

Red Phalarope – 27 Nov 2016 Tillamook Co., OR. Photo by Dave Irons.

This was a fall to remember for observing Red Phalaropes in our region, and was the most comprehensively described because of eBird.  They were easily observed from many coastal locations for two months, and numerous birds were found inland.  The eBird data tell a tale of record numbers and levels of phalaropes in many areas.

Red Phalaropes are well known as a storm-driven migrant on the Pacific coast, often associated with late fall or early winter storms with west or southwest winds (Marshall et al 2003), particularly “Pineapple Express” storms that originate well south of our region.   Paulson (1993) lists several wrecks and unusual onshore abundances, particularly after an 18 Jan 1986 storm.  Wahl et al (2005) cite unusual abundances in the winter of 1995-96, south to Olympia and inland to the Portland area; the winter of 1985-86, and Dec 2002. The most recent major wreck occurred in late Dec 2005 to early Jan 2006 over a two week period that included 641 birds tallied on the Grays Harbor CBC on 2 Jan 2016 and inland birds reported from Island, King, Kitsap, Thurston and Lewis Counties.  The eBird abundance[1] graph for all years for Bird Conservation Region 5 (Northern Pacific Rainforest)[2]  shows the classic Oct/Nov peak with Nov usually the stronger month.

Interestingly, the beached bird occurrence pattern is later than the live sighting pattern, peaking in December and extending through January. COASST data document wrecks in 2002-2003 and 2005-2006.  The COASST data were starting to show a spike in Nov 2016, indicating that mortality did not increase until well after increased numbers of live birds began to appear.

This fall seemed to eclipse all of those previous reports.  The numbers of Red Phalaropes found in the eBird Northwest region this fall are pretty remarkable by most measures, and there is a lot of data: 260 individual eBird checklists from WA with Red Phalarope in Oct/Nov 2016.  WA counties included: Clallam, Clark, Grays Harbor, Jefferson, King, Kitsap, Mason, Pacific, Pierce, San Juan, Snohomish, Thurston, Wahkiakum, Walla Walla, Whatcom, and the OR list contains:  Benton, Clackamas, Clatsop, Coos, Crook, Curry, Deschutes, Douglas, Hood River, Lane, Lincoln, Linn, Jackson, Marion, Multnomah, Polk, Tillamook, Washington, Yamhill!

There were several unusual characters to the fall 2016 episode, in addition to how extensively well-documented and widespread it was.  It was of exceptionally long duration, with multiple peaks, and some of those peaks did not appear to be associated with storms.

The unusual length of the 2016 event is best illustrated by examining the Frequency Graphs for the last 5 years (2012-2016) for Boiler Bay, an Oregon coastal seawatch site with a long history of good coverage.  It shows a steady, conspicuous Red Phalarope presence from early Oct to early Dec 2016, in contrast to the other years which showed one or two much narrower spikes. In addition to the steady presence, observers documented multiple peaks, one in mid-Oct and another in mid-Nov, as shown in the OR coastal frequency chart for the last five years WA coastal counties showed the same pattern, with a higher peak in Nov. This 2016 pattern extended beyond our region, the frequency graph for Bird Conservation Region 5 which extends from south central Alaska along the coast to northern California, shows same two peaks.

This occurrence provides an excellent example of the power of eBird for documenting unusual events.  A tremendous amount of information was collected and assimilated by eBird users in a short time period.  In Oct and Nov, 32% of WA and 27% of OR coastal county checklists included Red Phalaropes, and during that same time period 9.5% of all checklists from Bird Conservation Region 5 had Red Phalarope data.  These data provide a strong foundation for comparison with the next time that Red Phalaropes put on a flight of this magnitude.

Article by Bill Tweit

References:

Marshall, D.B., M.G. Hunter and A.L. Contreras, Eds. 2003. Birds of Oregon: A General Reference.  Oregon State University Press, Corvallis, OR. 768 pp.

Paulson, D. 1993. Shorebirds of the Pacific Northwest.  University of Washington Press.  406 pp.

Wahl, T.R., B. Tweit and S.G. Mlodinow. 2005.  Birds of Washington: Status and Distribution.  OSU Press, Corvallis, OR.  436 pp.

[1] Abundance is defined at http://help.ebird.org/customer/portal/articles/1210240

[2] The Bird Conservation Regions provide eBird users with the ability to summarize eBird data on an ecoregion basis, instead of a political division basis.  It is an option offered under Line Graph.