MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - When Hurricane Matthew's 90-mile-per-hour winds raked the coasts of Northeast Florida, Georgia and South Carolina in early October, there is a chance they pushed a very rare visitor to the coast of Alabama -- a Red Phalarope. (See photos.)
Normally Alabama birders who would like to add a Red Phalarope to their life lists would have to take a sea voyage off the east or west coasts of the United States, South America or Africa, or journey to the Arctic, and even then their chances of seeing the species would be hit-or-miss.
But Alabama Ornithological Society members got a rare chance to see this uncommon bird when they met Oct. 14-16 on Dauphin Island.
The Red Phalarope, a type of sandpiper, usually is only seen on land in North America when it breeds in the summer on the Arctic coastlines of Alaska and Canada. The remainder of the year it is an open-ocean bird, called "pelagic" by ornithologists.
How unusual is it to see a Red Phalarope in Alabama? When I checked E-bird, an online tracking site that birders use to report sightings, I found just 14 reports in Alabama dating all the way back to 1900, with the most recent prior to this month in 2011. (Note: I did not count sightings within a few days of one another in neighboring locations, assuming the possibility these were the same birds.) The sightings ranged all the way from North Alabama to Orange Beach. (Another note: It would be interesting if some researcher would attempt to correlate hurricanes in the same vicinity as Hurricane Matthew a week or two prior to those earlier sightings in Alabama.)
But it is not just its relative rarity that makes the Red Phalarope interesting to birders. It has other characteristics that set it apart from other species of sandpipers.
For instance, the phalarope female and male in some ways swap the traditional gender roles found in most bird species. The females are the most colorful and take the lead in courtship, according to the Audubon Field Guide. Once eggs are laid, the male incubates them and feeds the young until they can fend for themselves.
Why "Red" Phalarope, since readers easily can see from the attached photo gallery that the bird seen on Dauphin Island this month was white below and mainly light gray above, with a slightly yellow bill at its base?
As with many birds, during courtship and breeding the Red Phalarope's plumage is much different than at other times during the year. The breeding female is especially flamboyant, with a chestnut red neck, chest and stomach, white cheek patches, a black cap and a bright yellow bill. The male is similarly colored, but not as vibrant.
Except for the summer, the birds are at sea, often reported near whales -- probably foraging for food stirred up by the whales. Whalers once used flocks of phalaropes to help locate whales. Their association with Bowhead Whales led European whalers to refer to them as "bowhead birds," according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Because they breed in such remote far north areas and are almost completely open-ocean birds for up to 11 months a year, less is known about the Red Phalarope than the other two phalaropes that can be found in North America -- the Red-Necked Phalarope and the Wilson's Phalarope.
It was a exciting for me and other AOS birders to see this remarkable bird in Alabama. It was the highlight of a wonderful fall weekend on Dauphin Island.
(To see more photos of birds from the AOS meeting, go to the AOS Facebook page at: www.facebook.com/aosbirds)
BIRD BLITZ, CLARKE, WASHINGTON, CHOCTAW COUNTIES, NOV. 4
This "blitz" will be Friday. Nov. 4, from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m. Meet at Cuzz's 66 gas station in Thomasville by Walmart. The field trip will cover sites in the four counties, including parts of Choctaw National Wildlife Refuge. For details, message the "Alabama Black Belt and Piney Woods Birding Trails" Facebook page or email Jennifer Dial at firstname.lastname@example.org.
BIRMINGHAM AUDUBON PROGRAMS
The Birmingham Audubon Society has a wide-ranging slate of programs and field trips this fall, including a Nov. 5 field trip from 7 a.m. until noon at Red Mountain Park led by Susan Barrow and Matt Hunter.
Birmingham Audubon also will be offering a series of classes on "Learning to Identify Birds by Their Field Marks" led by outstanding birder Greg Harber. The classes will be from 6:30-8:30 p.m. on Nov. 7, 14, 21 and 28 at the Birmingham Audubon office. Registration is required. The cost is $20 for non-members; it is free for members. (Tip: Since membership is $20 per year, why not join?) Details are on the Birmingham Audubon web site.
In addition, the new schedule has been announced for the 2016-2017 Audubon Teaches Nature programs at Oak Mountain State Park. These are wonderful educational programs on a variety of nature issues, from birds of prey to alligators and other reptiles to geology and paleontology. You definitely should check out a few of the programs; I plan to attend all I can work into my schedule.
The next scheduled program will be on "Exploring Wild Alabama" with Larry Davenport and Ken Wills, Sunday, Nov. 20, 2 p.m., in the Oak Mountain Interpretive Center at Oak Mountain State Park. The programs are free, but there is the usual fee for entering the park.
For details, go to: http://birminghamaudubon.org/
WIREGRASS BIRDING TRAIL TOUR, NOV. 5
This new program at Lakepoint Resort State Park on Lake Eufaula promises to be an exciting addition to fall birding programs in Alabama. The program is a joint project of the Alabama State Parks system, the Alabama Birding Trails system, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division.
The daylong program includes a guided birding field trip in the morning, a "Duckumentary" waterfowl educational program at 1 p.m. at the Lakepoint State Park Lodge, followed by a guided birding field trip to Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge.
For details, go to: www.alapark.com/Wiregrass-Birding-trail-event
ALABAMA WILDLIFE CENTER
The Alabama Wildlife Center in Oak Mountain State Park does yeoman's work in rehabilitating injured and abandoned native Alabama birds. The center is in need of volunteers. If you would like to consider volunteering, the next volunteer orientation is Sunday, Nov. 6, from 2 p.m. until about 4 p.m. (Orientations are usually held the first Sunday in each month except December.) The sessions are free, but the usual park fees apply.
Attending the Volunteer Orientation is recommended if you're interested in volunteering or are simply curious about AWC. At this free session, you can learn about the center's mission and history, volunteer opportunities, and ways to support AWC's work. Attendees will get a brief tour of the facility. Dress is casual, and no commitment has to be made.
Details at: www.awrc.org