Wilson’s Phalaropes and their Journey from Canada to Argentina

Key stopovers at Great Salt Lake and Mono Lake allow for 10000 mile migrations.
A group of phalaropes swim in a lake with out of focus mountains in the distance.
Wilson’s Phalaropes and Red-necked Phalaropes. Photo: Janice Gardner/Sageland Collaborative

This article was co-written by: Emily Hamel, Jaimi Butler, Sierra Hastings, Janice Gardner, and Max Malmquist.

"47348 has been detected at Great Salt Lake."

It was the confirmation we had been waiting for—a male Wilson’s Phalarope tagged as “47348” had reached Great Salt Lake after flying 1079 kilometers (670 miles) from Chaplin Lake in Saskatchewan, Canada with only a short rest after crossing the U.S. border into northern Montana.

Wilson’s Phalaropes, a unique shorebird that only weigh as much as a slice of bread, are known for their defiance of gender roles typical of the bird world. The male Wilson’s Phalaropes act as the primary caretakers of the young, incubating the eggs as they wait to migrate from their nesting grounds until their chicks can fly. The larger and more brightly colored females deposit their eggs, then almost immediately take off to saline lakes like Mono Lake, Great Salt Lake, and the Salton Sea. It’s this movement that the birds are primarily known for.

Flying from Canada to Argentina, Wilson’s Phalaropes perform one of the longest migrations in the world, during which they rely almost entirely on saline lakes with brine flies and brine shrimp to sustain their journey. When the birds arrive at these lakes, they swim through the salty water, spinning like tops to draw aquatic invertebrates to the lake’s surface.

These lakes throughout the American West act as stopover sites during the phalaropes’ migration, providing an abundant food source where thousands of these birds can double their fat reserves and molt(that is, replace their breeding plumage for less colorful feathers when they are not attempting to attract a mate) in preparation for their flight to wintering grounds in South America. However, wide-spread drought and water diversions have threatened the ecological stability of salt lakes across the Western Hemisphere, putting the survival of this species at risk. 

In early June, two weeks before we received word he had landed, Wilson’s Phalarope “47348” was one of fifteen phalaropes that was safely captured, fitted with a tiny radio transmitter, and released as part of a collaborative research project. The small plastic radio transmitters weigh less than a paperclip and are smaller than a dime (1 gram and about 12 mm long). As these research birds travel across the globe, the transmitters affixed to their back relay their location in time through communication with a network of Motus (Latin for movement) radio towers. While this data collection method is currently growing throughout the Western Hemisphere, more resources and collaborative opportunities are needed to expand the network, explore new technologies, and to ensure that the birds’ movements are recorded to a significant extent.

Before scientists can place a transmitter on a phalarope, they first need to catch the bird. Capturing shorebirds for tagging is a notoriously difficult task. Unlike most songbirds, shorebirds spend their time in wide-open spaces with low vegetation and are quick to relocate to evade netting. However, with chicks or eggs nearby, a male Wilson’s Phalarope cannot abandon his duty to tend to his young, allowing an ecological team to locate and tag these dedicated fathers while they are nesting in grassy, shallow marshes around Chaplin Lake in southern Canada. Once captured, one ecologist gently holds the bird and parts the flight feathers on their back, while another ecologist trims the feathers below to expose a small patch of skin. A small dot of glue is placed on the transmitter, fixing it to the bird’s skin. The team releases the bird only once they are sure the glue has dried and the device is secure, watching him for several minutes to guarantee he can fly uninhibited. Much like human medical devices applied with adhesive, the glue is only temporary, meaning that the tag will eventually fall off the phalarope’s back within 1 to 3 months, allowing his feathers to regrow.  The information we can learn through these transmitters will allow ecologists across the hemisphere to better understand the species and to implement management decisions that will benefit birdlife in the long run.

While Wilson’s Phalarope “47348” was sitting on his nest in Canada, newly adorned with his “science jewelry,” a group of passionate and dedicated humans were meeting at Mono Lake in California to celebrate and connect the sister saline lakes that support these birds.

As we approached the shore of Mono Lake, we were greeted by clouds of friendly alkali flies.  Crouched at the water’s edge, we found ourselves captivated by the movements of thousands of ethereal brine shrimp swimming just below the lake’s surface. Surprisingly, the water tasted uncharacteristically fresh as a result of the recent freshwater inflow, coming from snowpack in the nearby Sierra Nevada Mountains, sitting on top of the dense salty water before mixing.  

Scientists, land managers, birders, and nature lovers from across the hemisphere came together this June for the Mono Basin Bird Chautauqua & Phalarope Festival, an event organized by the Mono Lake Committee and Oikonos (with international support from the U.S. Forest Service, Manomet/WHSRN, Fundación Líderes de Ansenuza, and Aves Argentinas). From Argentina to Canada, from Great Salt Lake to California’s coasts, folks came together for this occasion to share their saline stories on the shores of Mono Lake.

Photo: Max Malmquist/Audubon

While it was our salt lakes that brought us together, we came to learn the unique intricacies and similarities of each lake and the organisms that rely on them. We learned that alkali flies are “scuba divers”, encasing their bodies in an air bubble to eat algae and lay their eggs on the underwater tufa towers, but that we are still discovering how Phalaropes primary food source (Great Salt Lake’s brine flies) are faring after historic low lake level and the desiccation of their microhabitat in 2022. And we found that while Great Salt Lake and Mar Chiquita in Argentina share the same species of brine shrimp (possibly due to shrimp eggs stowing away on the feathers of Phalaropes eons ago), Mono Lake brine shrimp are so different that their eggs sink rather than float.

Throughout these conversations, we were continually drawn back to the birds, solidifying the fact that the Wilson’s Phalarope is the connecting factor among this group. Despite thousands of miles, different cultures, and language barriers—we were all brought together that weekend by this little shorebird. Right on cue, four female Wilson’s Phalaropes, still in their breeding plumage, landed gracefully on the lake. They were Mono Lake’s first phalaropes of the season and had likely mated, laid eggs, and left their mate in Canada to take care of the young.

While our weekend at the Mono Lake Chautauqua consisted of networking, scientific collaboration, and, of course, birdwatching, the event was nothing less than a celebration. In the span of three short days, we celebrated a birthday, cheered for an Argentinian biologist presenting her work entirely in English for the first time, showered congratulations on a dedicated ecologist about to take on a new leadership role at her nonprofit, and applauded a muralist (Franco Cervato Cozza) for decorating the towns around three saline lakes with beautiful images of phalaropes and their habitats. We ate sandwiches in the grass and watched a bird calling competition, enjoyed a phalarope fashion show, and listened to a local band and two phalarope biologists perform a song written about the species they both study. Toward the end of the weekend this group of bird enthusiasts stood together among the freshly painted murals, and all raised a glass to “phalaropes and salt lakes in collaboration.”

The truth is that we don't have a full understanding of phalarope populations, their migratory movements, and behavior. Many of the folks in attendance at the Mono Lake Chautauqua have been a part of a working group that seeks to better understand phalarope ecology through international scientific collaboration, coordinated bird surveys, and the development of tracking projects through geospatial networks like Motus. This research is done with the goal of understanding questions like: 

Where do the phalaropes actually go? Do some of them only go to Mono Lake or Great Salt Lake, or do they spend time at both of them? How long does it take to travel between lakes? How long do they stay at each location? How does what happens at one lake affect Phalaropes at the other? Where do specific birds breed and are breeding grounds related to migration routes? What are the population trends? 

Answers to these questions will help us understand how phalaropes are responding to habitat changes, as saline lakes face the threat of desiccation due to climate change and water diversions. The Wilson’s Phalarope is just one species out of many that rely on saline lakes throughout their lifecycle, and increasing our knowledge base will allow for more focused management as the endeavor to protect these unique habitats persists. The work being undertaken through the regional Intermountain West Shorebird Surveys and other efforts being undertaken in South America can help to fill these gaps, but more resources and collaborations will lead to more robust understanding of these species needs.

When Wilson’s Phalarope “47348” leaves Great Salt Lake, he will attempt a flight of 10,000 km (6,213 miles) to Argentina to spend the winter. Inland saline and freshwater lakes sprinkle the hemispheric highway from Canada to Argentina, acting as “rest stops” where these avian travelers can find fuel and respite. The futures of phalarope “47348” and millions of other migratory birds are tied to these lakes and the relief they provide on their journeys. This is why it’s so important to protect them.

As we reminisce on our time at Mono Lake, we feel so fortunate for the passionate individuals who have dedicated their time to finding solutions for migratory birds. The group that we celebrated the Chautauqua with is just a snapshot of the global community who cares about these birds, and we encourage you to join us or to find a group near you to celebrate them with as well!

An excerpt from a song written by Ryan Carle of Oikonos in homage of the Wilson’s Phalarope migration:

“Me Llaman Falaropo” - Preformed at the first ever Mono Lake Phalarope Festival by Ryan Carle, Marcella Castellino, and the Black-throated Grays.

I will return, the salt lakes call me
and my journey never ends.
I'm called to the northlands, to the prairies
where I'll never cease to spin
I'll lay my eggs in a grassy swale
to be taken care of by the male
as I begin my migration again

Vuelo en bandadas de cientos de miles (Flight in flocks of hundreds of thousands)
Vuelo arriba, vuelo pa' tras (I fly up, I fly back
Siempre bailando en el aire (always dancing in the air
Siempre girando una vez más (Always spinning once more
En Mar Chiquita, Lago Mono, en la Laguna Epecuén (In Mar Chiquita, Mono Lake, in the Epecuén Lagoon
Hicimos una nube espectacular (We made a spectacular cloud