Monday, September 3, 2007

Red Phalarope in Lawrence County

The Lock 27 boat ramp is probably not widely known outside of the local populace of Rome/Athalia, and isn't high on birders' radar as a great birding locale. This is right along the Ohio River in Lawrence County and as far south as one can get in Ohio. I've been there a few times, always to look for some of the rare and unusual plants that occur there. The highlight is the low-lying parking lot that is regularly inundated with water, leaving a thick layer of mud. Good mudflat plants grow in this soupy substrate, including one of only two Ohio populations of Mud-plantain, Heteranthera reniformis.

Yesterday, there were some shorebirds feeding in the muck; mostly Killdeer, but also a Pectoral Sandpiper and a Lesser Yellowlegs. I quickly scanned them, and was surprised to see what appeared to be a phalarope down at the end of the mud. I worked up on him, and managed some decent shots. At first I thought it was a Red-necked Phalarope - a great bird for southern Ohio - and went back to botanizing.

When I started looking at yesterday's photos, I quickly realized something was wrong with that ID and smacked myself for not paying the bird more mind at the time. It is a Red Phalarope, always a rarity in Ohio, and a major oddity along the Ohio River in southern Ohio in early September. In fact, there are very few records anywhere in Ohio for this species this early in fall, and perhaps none from along the Ohio River.

It is in a plumage that I'm not familiar with, perhaps a molting adult. The bill is what made me realize my mistake as soon as I enlarged the photos a bit. It is much thicker and stubbier-looking than a Red-necked. Lesson learned - always take time to chase after anything unusual and don't stop to smell the flowers!

The phalarope wallowing in the mud. Can't see too much here, but the feather edgings on its left wing are visible and bold like a juvenile.
This shot shows the bill better, and is what made me realize its true ID when I blew it up a bit. I've not seen Red Phalarope in this plumage or at this time of year; the ones that I see are always in clean unmarked gray winter plumage. This bird has some interesting featured that I haven't yet seen referenced, but all my shorebird books aren't handy right now. It's crown is strongly bisected with white, and it has a very strong black collar that extends partly around its lower throat, forming a partial collar. Perhaps a molting adult?This shot seems to also show the bigger, more robust shape of a Red Phalarope, and again shows the thick bill. Always expect the unexpected, and that's the last bird that would have been on my mind for a sweltering September 3 day in Lawrence County!

One of the odd plants that I was overly fixated on, to the detriment of proper phalarope ID. This is Tooth-cup, Rotala ramosior, a neat little mudflat dweller. The muck in the Lock 27 boat launch parking lot is filled with strange little mud-dwelling plants, some of them rare.
As for the phalarope, I was glad to see that I'm not the only one to have made that error. Read on for an almost mirror case in neighboring PA...
Red Phalarope at Bald Knob, Allegheny County, PA

UPDATED 9/7/2005 with two pictures taken on September 6

This molting phalarope was discovered by Mark Vass on September 4 and initially identified as a Red-necked Phalarope. It remained the next morning when the first photos of it were taken. At that time, I made the mistake of taking a pre-conceived notion as to the bird's identity along with me, so that when I saw the bird, I too called it a Red-necked Phalarope.

But upon review, this individual is actually a Red Phalarope, based on the thickness of the bill, the presence of a very subtle yellow base on the mandible (very difficult to discern in these photos but present nonetheless), and, on those feathers that have molted in as the bird transitions to basic plumage, a nice even, light gray. As I type it, it seems so obvious that it is not a Red-necked, so much so that I am rather embarassed to have totally blocked out any attempt an analytical processing in the field.

Nevertheless, it is a Red Phalarope. After coming to the realization that the initial species ID was wrong, it became clear to me that the bird is in fact not an adult at all, but a juvenile molting into basic plumage. Later this was independently verified by others who all, of course, agree that the proper identification is Red Phalarope.

Likely, it was driven into the area by Hurricane Katrina, and probably has been present at Bald Knob for several days. So perhaps it will remain for several more.

In characteristic Red (or Red-necked) phalarope fashion, this bird had found a food source it liked very much and became entirely focused on it, allowing very close approach, to which these photos will testify.

To compare this bird to a Red-necked Phalarope, have a look at my Adak Island, AK page here. Scroll down to the picture links at the bottom to see an alternate plumaged bird that was similarly approchable. Most importantly, note the bill shape and thickness on the "real" Red-necked Phalarope, and compare it to the bird at Bald Knob today.

These first two pictures were taken September 6. The position of the afternoon sun, the calm wind, the bird... everything was just perfect:

Red Phalarope in Pennsylvania, September 5, 2005.




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