A November Storm and Wrecked Phalaropes

-Every fall season in the Pacific Northwest seems to be marked by at least one major November storm that rolls in off of the Pacific Ocean. Along the outer coast, these events are characterized by sustained gale force winds out of the south or southeast, peak gusts that approach triple digit velocities, huge surf, and storm tides that never seem to go out. Inland areas experience blustery winds with occasional 40-50mph gusts, torrential rains, and storm drains clogged by the season's last major shedding of leafy foliage.

In the aftermath, nearly leafless deciduous trees remind us that winter is just around the corner. Downed trees are most likely to be Douglas-firs. When the soil becomes sodden around their comparatively small root wads, they fall like dominoes in high winds, particularly in areas where formerly contiguous forests have been fragmented by development or clear-cutting. In a conifer forest, there is safety in numbers and stand density.


In the aftermath of a late fall storm, scenes like this one photographed at Bastendorff Beach in Coos County are commonplace along Oregon's coast. Gulls (mostly Western and California) amass by the hundreds and sometimes thousands at sites where small streams or larger rivers reach the Pacific Ocean. Brown Pelicans may also be seen by the hundreds at such sites.

During the first week of November 2009, a major storm wracked the Oregon and Washington coasts. Wind gusts of up to 90 mph were recorded on some headlands and up to five inches of rain fell in places. On 5 November swells of up to 25 feet were reported off the southern Oregon coast. During and after this onslaught thousands of birds flooded into the sheltered estuaries or rode out the storm grounded on beaches. Birders tend to measure the intensity of these storms by the numbers of birds "wrecked" along the outer coast. Even modest storms deposit large numbers of gulls and lingering Brown Pelicans along Oregon's beaches.

However, it usually takes a big blow before the Red Phalaropes show up onshore and even stronger systems to carry them farther inland. Not quite the size of a Killdeer, the Red Phalarope is a somewhat plump-bodied, small-headed shorebird with a rather thin medium length bill.  At first glance, it would not seem to be the sort of bird that would be capable of surviving much of the year far from land bobbing in the ocean and yet, Red Phalaropes are highly pelagic. Outside of the breeding season, inshore visits are rare and hardly voluntary. They are borne shoreward on high winds, often arriving exhausted and hungry. At times they seem to dot every available body of water. They may be found in small puddles, rainpools, drainage ditches and anywhere else that standing water has collected.

Most of the Red Phalaropes that appear inshore during late fall are hatch-year birds. These birds are still molting, thus their plumage can be highly varied. A sampling of their different looks is presented below.


In flight, the broad white wing stripe of a Red Phalarope is suggestive of the more expected Sanderling. However, the large black eye patch and black feathering running up the nape and onto the crown identifies this bird as a hatch-year Red Phalarope. By November, most juveniles are already displaying a fairly uniform pale gray back like the bird above. The reddish-brown wash on the throat is barely visible and it is not yet showing yellow at the base of the bill (shown by adults). The back is mostly gray with just a few remaining dark feathers and the forecrown is mottled white and blackish.

In their weakened state wrecked phalaropes may be easy prey. Examination of pellets regurgitated by a Snowy Owl that spent much of the winter of 2005-06 near the mouth of the Columbia River, Clatsop County, Oregon revealed that Red Phalaropes comprised a sizeable portion of that owl's diet (http://home.pacifier.com/~neawanna/SNOW/SNOW_pellets.html). It is likely that other raptors and terrestrial predators take wrecked phalaropes as well.


Storm-driven phalaropes are often so tired or famished that they are easily approachable. The molting juvenile Red Phalarope in the two images above was no more than eight feet away when I photographed it at Bastendorf Beach, Coos County, Oregon on 6 November 2009. Notice how this bird still retains much of its juvenal plumage. It is not as far along in its molt as the bird shown in the first three images. It still has a fairly solid dark crown, extensive dark feathering on the hind neck and wing coverts, and is also still showing quite a bit of reddish brown wash on the throat and foreneck.


Among the hundreds of Red Phalaropes our group saw on 6 November 2009, only a few were adults. The images above and below show a basic-plumaged ("non-breeding") adult with a completely white crown, a uniform pale gray back, and no darker feathering at the base of the hind neck or on the wing coverts. It also has a pristine white throat and foreneck with no hint of reddish-brown wash.


A trip to the coast either during or immediately after a big blow is rarely dull. One can expect to see gulls and pelicans by the thousands in November and seawatches typically produce sightings of Northern Fulmars and Black-legged Kittiwakes, sometimes into the hundreds. These storms offer perhaps the best opportunity to see and study basic and juvenal-plumaged Red Phalaropes at close range, especially if you are one who does not do well on offshore boat trips.

I'll conclude with a word of caution. During such events, do your birding from high ground. Resist any temptation to go out onto open beaches or walk out jetties. Rogue waves can wash you off the top of a jetty in an instant or race all the way up the beach to the foredune, leaving you suddenly knee or waist deep in extremely cold, fast-moving water with no means of escape. From those I've talked to who have found themselves in these situations, it is not fun.