Red and red-necked phalaropes share the same pond in our aviary. You can tell them apart by size and color. Red phalaropes are larger, with shorter, thicker bills and brighter colors. In breeding season, female red phalaropes sport distinctive chestnut-red bellies.
Although built like other shorebirds—with short tails, sharply pointed wings and long legs for wading—red phalaropes spend most of the year at sea. In fact, they're one of the few birds classified as pelagic shorebirds. Because they're not built for diving, phalaropes have developed a unique way of feeding: they swim in fast, tight circles at the surface, which creates a whirlpool of plankton they then sweep up with their bills.
During migration, these birds gather in large numbers along spits and in lagoons. This makes them vulnerable to spilled oil, which tends to concentrate in these areas as it washes to shore.
The female phalarope finds a nest site, while the male builds the nest, incubates the eggs and then nurtures the offspring. In the meantime the female often mates with other males.
Phalaropes gather in large numbers (thousands) on Mono Lake. With water twice as salty as sea water, the lake's no home for fishes, but it does support an abundance of brine shrimps and brine flies. By devouring these small animals, phalaropes double their body weight. This added fat helps sustain the phalaropes during their 6,000-mile migration to winter grounds.