The Phalarope: A Shorebird Global Traveler
By David Carle, Park Ranger, Mono Lake
Tufa State Reserve
A woman walked along the sandy shore of Mono
Lake. It was summer. A ground squirrel stood up
straight, staring at her as she approached, then
scurried into the nearby grass and disappeared
into its burrow. Alkali flies massed on the beach,
but whisked away from her feet as she ambled along.
Her attention was focused on the water of the
lake. Hundreds of birds were scattered across
the surface. She recognized most of them as sea
gulls, but there were smaller birds too. She watched
several of the delicate-looking shorebirds pecking
at the water, wondering why many of them spun
in tight circles periodically.
She was not watching where her feet were going. That's
how she stubbed her toe on the bottle.
It hurt. Her big toe, exposed in her sandal, throbbed
painfully. Why was she so clumsy? Things like that were
always happening to her. She bent to pick up the bottle,
prepared to hurl it far away, but stopped.
It was not a belated sense of guilt at tossing someone's
trash into the lake that stopped her. It was the weight
and appearance of the bottle. It had an alien air; some
sort of dark glass flask, with curious patterns decorating
She twisted at the cork which stoppered the bottle.
When it finally worked loose, a genie appeared in a
must-smelling cloud of vapor.
"Thank you, mistress, for releasing me. As a reward,
I grant you the standard three wishes."
As you might imagine, she stammered the standard exclamations
of surprise and disbelief, before she stopped wasting
time and considered her wishes.
"If I can really change my life...have the things
I've always wanted...this is so hard!" She kicked
at the sand, which made her hurt toe throb. "I
wish I was graceful, and beautiful. No! Not exactly
that. I wish...I wish I could fly. Soar through the
sky like a swift, graceful bird."
The genie looked sourly at her. "I don't think
you understand how this works. If I was a stickler for
accuracy you would've already used up your three wishes.
But I think I perceive the essence of your desire. That's
number one. Be more careful about the next two."
Her next two wishes were much clearer. "I've always
wanted to travel; to see distant lands. Please? And
for number three, I wish my husband would take more
of a hand with the kids." She rushed to explain.
"I mean, if I'm going to travel, someone's got
to stay home and take care of things. He's just always
left the children to me at least the real work
that goes with raising kids. So if you're going to grant
wish number two and let me travel, you'd better take
care of my husband and the kids while you're at it."
She sighed, satisfied, but wondering if she ought to
have asked for gold and jewels instead. Oh well, it
And it was. The genie did his thing, and her wishes
A group of twenty people were walking along the sandy
shore of Mono Lake. Their leader wore the Smokey the
Bear Hat of a park ranger. He stopped and pointed toward
a flock of small birds on the lake.
"Those are Wilson's phalaropes. See the buffy
color on their necks and the black streak on the head?
They've just recently arrived here from Canada, where
they nest. They only weigh about one ounce when they
reach the lake after that long flight. But they get
busy, fattening on flies and shrimp, and within 30 days
have doubled their body weight.
"Think about that! Thank about what you weigh,
right now. Consider what you'd have to do to double
that in just one month. The phalaropes find so much
food here that they can get very fat, very fast. They
use the fat to fuel their migration south, when they
leave. After a couple months here they will fly down
to South America for the winter. And they won't even
stop to feed on the way. They'll fly 2000 miles in just
two days, non-stop. Mono Lake is their essential 'gas
station' and 'rest area.'"
The group watched the flock of birds. They looked so
tiny and frail, it was hard to accept that they were
such world travelers, moving between northern Canada
and South America, then back again, every spring and
"140,000 phalaropes visit Mono Lake each summer.
We see these Wilson's phalaropes first, then red-necked
phalaropes later in the summer. The...oh, look!"
Something caused the entire flock of birds to take
to the air. Several hundred phalaropes, wings rapidly
beating, climbed up, then made the crowd gasp as they
began to move like a single organism. Dark backs suddenly
disappeared, replaced by white breasts as each bird
turned. Since all of the phalaropes turned in unison,
the effect was stunning. It was something like a school
of tropical fish moving as one body in an aquarium.
For a few moments, the flock put on a precision drill-team
show, flashing back and forth over the lake, spiralling
high, before settling back onto the water, right where
they had begun.
Then, one of the phalaropes swam boldly toward the
people standing at the shore, pecking at flies on the
water-surface as it approached. It paused after each
peck and stared at the ranger, as though it was listening
to him and understood his words.
"All of these phalaropes are females. I find it
fascinating that, in the nesting areas up north, after
each female lays her eggs, she leaves. Comes down here
to Mono Lake. Meanwhile, the male is left to sit on
the eggs, hatch the chicks and care for them until they
can fly. Then the males and young birds migrate. It's
an interesting reversal of sex roles."
The crowd laughed when a young woman raised a fist
and said "right on!" Several couples with
kids in tow exchanged male-female looks."
The phalarope had continued to inch closer and closer
to shore. When the crowd laughed, the phalarope began
"Look. Is she celebrating her women's liberation?"
someone asked the ranger.
"Could be. More likely, she's just hungry. Phalaropes
will spin in tight circles like that to stir up food
and concentrate it into a little whirlpool. See how
she's stopped and begun eating now?
"She's a beauty, isn't she? So tiny and graceful.
I'm really glad that Mono Lake is here for these birds.
It's important to recognize that, should this lake's
ecosystem die, places in South America and Canada might
be affected." He turned, prepared to lead the group
farther down the shore, when his foot kicked a bottle
half-buried in the sand.
The ranger picked up the bottle. He examined it curiously
for amoment, tipping it over. A little sand spilled
out. He shrugged and, as he continued walking, put the
bottle into his daypack with other bits of litter he
had gathered since the start of the tour.
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