Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Post #179 - The life and death of the Red-necked Phalarope, part 1 of 2

Every once in a while, the timing of two events imbues them with otherwise unrealized significance. Such was the case these last few days, and I'd like to share the following story with you.

This past week - and with covid restrictions loosening - I took an extended ride to the Central Valley to explore some new bike-birding territory in Stanislaus, San Joaquin, and Contra Costa Counties (more on this in a future post). Incongruously still missing Red-necked Phalarope for my Alameda County bike list, I decided to make an in-transit stop at Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge after crossing the Dumbarton Bridge on the first morning of my five-day loop. Unfortunately, enthusiasm waned when I found this in the middle of the road just outside the refuge entrance.

Male Red-necked Phalarope - The number and array of 
car-killed birds I find while cycling is astounding. 

I've seen tens of thousands of Red-necked Phalaropes over the years, notably on pelagic trips and at the Great Salt Lake in Utah, but I hadn't appreciated how dainty the species was until I held this lifeless example in my hand. With the bird migrating from its Arctic breeding grounds to its tropical wintering grounds and back each year, it was depressing to know the long-distant migrant  succumbed to unnatural causes - probably a vehicular strike or power line collision - given the herculean challenges it likely overcame during its sadly-truncated life. The encounter was really depressing, particularly as my subsequent half-hour search failed to reveal any living phalaropes, and the episode weighed heavily on me through the remainder of my ride to Livermore.

Red-necked Phalarope range map 

Fast-forward four days, and I'm back on the Alameda Bayshore after looping inland (map below). Birding Hayward Regional Shoreline, I noticed a small area which looked surprisingly suitable for photography. The elevated bayshore dikes are useless for proper shorebird photography, and access considerations and pollution make it impossible to get into the habitat in all but a few places. Seeing Black-necked Stilts and American Avocets in a clean and accessible patch of marsh, I put birding on hold and flipped into photo mode, the warm morning light painting those resident shorebirds with photogenic colors. Approaching the birds, I noticed eight Red-necked Phalaropes foraging on a small and adjacent patch of water. Beyond representing my sought county bike-bird, they proved very receptive to approach once I busted out my 7D2 and 400/5.6. Laying down in the packed mud abutting their preferred puddle, I captured a few frames, these representing the two best. After finding the dead phalarope on the outgoing leg, it was wonderful to experience the living versions for an extended time and at close range. 

A very rough outline of my route. With additional 
and unmapped exploration, the total was ~290 miles.

Male Red-necked Phalarope

Female Red-necked Phalarope

So, two phalarope intersections - one depressing, one inspiring - separated by 250 miles of pedaling. I thought it was a fun story. Hopefully you do as well. I'll have part two of this feature sometime in the next week, so please check back for that. Cheers!

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