What an incredible, LOOOOONG winter it’s been. It’s May 1st…and we’re supposed to get 2 inches of snow today. In mid-April, we had the biggest ice storm I’ve ever seen, resulting in 3 days where my work was closed, and 4 days of school being closed. Since mid-April we’ve had significant snow about 3 times.
Sunday I went birding for a bit. April 28th…and there was still ICE on parts of the lakes where I was birding. Unbelievable. From a birding perspective, it’s certainly been an odd spring, as “winter” species have hung around well past their normal departure times, and some of the early spring migrants have stacked up in the region, waiting for a thaw further north so they can resume their migration. Just last week, during (yet another) snow storm, at my feeders I had the incredibly odd mix of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak (summer bird!), scads of Dark-eyed Juncos (Winter!), a Pine Siskin (Winter!), and Red-winged Blackbirds (bird I’ve never seen in my yard). I’ve had “winter” sparrows (American Tree Sparrows) foraging right alongside “summer” sparrows (Song Sparrows and Chipping Sparrows) below my feeders. Weird, weird, weird.
Sunday was a warm, “normal” spring day, and despite the ice still hanging around the lakes in Lake and Kingsbury counties, there were quite a few birds. I specifically was looking for shorebirds, and in a normal year, we’d have quite a few around. However, despite a lot of waterfowl, gulls, pelicans, cormorants, and wading birds, there were hardly any shorebirds. The one exception? A massive flock of Wilson’s Phalarope on the “highway 81 lakes” north of Madison, South Dakota.
Wilson’s Phalarope are a personal favorite of mine. They are rather pretty birds, and are unusual in that it’s the female who is the more colorful. While pretty, it’s not their looks that makes them a favorite of mine, it’s their behavior. Wilson’s Phalaropes, like other Phalaropes, often feed by “spinning”. They swim in very tight circles on the surface of the water, and it’s thought the spinning action brings up small food items from below, close to the surface where the Phalaropes can grab them with their bill.
Wilson’s Phalarope do breed in the area, but when breeding, they’re not as visible and you don’t see them in numbers. On this trip, I saw the largest flock of Phalaropes I’ve ever seen…at least 1,000 birds, and they were all doing their mad spinning in the shallows. I never, and I mean never, video birds, but for some reason I had my little video camera with me and really wanted to document their behavior. I pulled onto a tiny abandoned driveway next to the water, and was at first disappointed when all the birds flew away. However, as I sat there, the circling flock slowly began to return, with small groups landing in the water many yards from shore. After 20 minutes or so, they’d largely “forgotten” about the guy sitting in his car, and the entire flock was spinning like crazy on the water’s surface, just a few yards from where I sat.
Fun day, and very cool to capture it on video. Here’s a YouTube link to the video of the “spinning” Phalaropes: