These Sandpipers Collect Food by Creating Whirlpools

The Red-necked Phalarope twirls itself on the water’s surface to draw in tiny crustaceans and other critters.

This audio story is brought to you by BirdNote, a partner of The National Audubon Society. BirdNote episodes air daily on public radio stations nationwide.


This is BirdNote.

Red-necked Phalaropes are sandpipers that make their living from the sea. They breed on the arctic tundra but then migrate to the open ocean, where they’ll stay through the winter, feeding on tiny crustaceans and other marine animals.

You’ll be lucky to ever see one of these little birds, but if you do it’ll probably be on a shallow arctic lake. Stay and watch for a bit and you may see the phalaropes’ wonderfully unique method of feeding.

The birds twirl on the surface like little ballerinas, spinning and pecking, again and again.

As it spins, the phalarope forces water away from the surface, causing an upward flow from as deep as a foot below. And with this flow comes food. Little animals, like tiny fly larvae, are forced to the surface. Then the phalarope quickly opens its bill, creating another rapid movement that pulls its prey into the back of its mouth.

One of the rewards of observing birds closely is that you see the fascinating strategies they use to survive and thrive.

See Red-necked Phalaropes in action on our website, BirdNote.org.

I’m Michael Stein.



Bird sounds provided by The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Recorded by G. Vyn. Ambient sound by Kessler Productions.

BirdNote’s theme music was composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and John Kessler.

Producer: John Kessler

Managing Producer: Jason Saul

Editor: Ashley Ahearn

Associate Producer: Ellen Blackstone

Assistant Producer: Mark Bramhill

Narrator: Michael Stein

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