The Red Palarope

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Birds of America

By John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.


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[Red Phalarope.]

[Phalaropus fulicaria.]


My first drawing of the Red Phalarope was made at Louisville in Kentucky, a few weeks after my removal to that place, in 1808. One afternoon, while returning from the house of my hospitable friend General CROGHAN, I observed a large flock of birds proceeding along the shores of the Ohio. They were quite unknown to me, and therefore extremely anxious I was to procure some of them. I therefore ran through the woods until I got ahead of them, went to the margin of the river, and concealed myself at some distance from them. They swam beautifully, played about, picked up substances floating on the water, now dispersed, and again came close together, until at length coming opposite to a small sand-bar stretching out from the shore to the distance of a few yards, they directed their course towards it, and waded out. When just landing, they were so close to each other that I could not withstand the temptation, and so levelled my gun, pulled both triggers, and saw that I had made considerable havoc among them. Those which had not been touched, flew off in a compact body, while the birds that had been but slightly wounded made for the water, and swam away so fast that they seemed to be running on the surface. I picked up seventeen, which I found so beautiful and withal so plump, that I felt quite delighted, and resolved to shoot as many more as I could. But I did not succeed in killing more than other five that day.

I had never until then seen a Phalarope of any kind, although I had inspected some shocking figures of these elegant birds, figures so unlike the originals that even with the aid of a name printed beneath, you could not recognise them. Such of my acquaintances at Louisville as had been accustomed to shoot birds, had never seen one of this species on the Ohio, or in any part of the country. It was then and there that I made my first drawing of the Red Phalarope, which I shewed to ALEXANDER WILSON during his visit to Louisville. It being late in October, the specimens which I had procured were all in their grey livery, and proved capital eating. As I was anxious to watch the rest of the flock, which I think must have been composed of at least a hundred individuals, I went to the same place on the following afternoon. As I crossed Bear Grass creek, near its junction with the Ohio, I observed eight or ten of them walking over the green moss on the surface of the water near the shore. Of these I succeeded in killing three. In the course of a walk of two miles along the banks of the river, I could see none; and some Blue-winged Teals happening to pass over from the stream in the direction of a pond between it and Kieger's ferry-house, I went in pursuit of them. Before I got up they had flown away, or had passed over without alighting. There, however, to my great joy, I found all the Phalaropes swimming along the margins and picking up the seeds of grasses. They were much less shy than when I met with them on the river, so that I soon procured eight more at a single shot. The rest rose, emitting quick sharp cries, performed a few evolutions at a considerable height, and went off to the westward.

On the 1st of September, 1831, while on board the packet ship Columbia, commanded by my good friend JOSEPH C. DELANO, Esq., Nantucket being distant about sixty miles, we came upon an extensive bank of sea-weeds and froth, about a mile in length, which I was told was produced by the action of the tides. On this bed were hundreds of Phalaropes of this species, walking as unconcernedly as if on land. As we approached it, they rose and flew around the vessel for a few minutes, and when we had passed through we saw them re-alight.

I have not seen the Red Phalarope alive on any other occasion than those mentioned above; and I am indebted to my generous friend Captain JAMES CLARK ROSS for the beautiful specimens in summer plumage, from which the figures in the plate were taken.

None of those which I had wounded attempted to dive. When caught and held in the hand, they merely fluttered and tried to escape, like other small birds. Their flight was rapid, resembling that of the Red-backed Sandpiper, Tringa alpina, and they performed various evolutions, sometimes skimming over the water, when they kept more apart than either when rising at first, or when they reached a certain height, on attaining which they pursued their course, with alternate inclinations to either side.

According to Captain J. C. ROSS, these birds breed in great numbers far north. The eggs, of which he has favoured me with some, measure an inch and a quarter by seven-eighths; their ground colour is dull greenish-yellow, irregularly blotched and dotted with reddish-brown.

RED PHALAROPE, Phalaropus hyperboreus, Wils. Amer. Orn., vol. ix. p. 75.

PHALAROPUS FULICARIUS, Flat-billed Phalarope, Swains. and Rich. F. Bor. Amer., vol. ii. p. 407.

RED PHALAROPE, Nutt. Man., vol. ii. p. 236.

RED PHALAROPE, Phalaropus fulicarius, Aud. Orn. Biog., vol. iii. p. 404.

Adult, 7 1/2, 13.

Occasionally in flocks in Kentucky, on the Ohio, during autumn often at sea on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. Breeds in high northern latitudes, as far as Melville Peninsula. Stragglers at times reach as far south as New Jersey, but the route of this species toward warmer regions is along the Pacific coast.

Adult Male in summer.

Bill scarcely longer than the head, straight, slender, nearly cylindrical, towards the end broader and flattened, the tip narrow. Upper mandible with the dorsal line straight, excepting at the end, where it is a little curved, the ridge convex, flattened at the broad part, the sides slightly sloping, the edges rounded, and near the slightly curved obtuse tip inflected. Nasal groove linear, extending to near the tip; nostrils basal, linear-elliptical. Lower mandible with the angle very long and narrow, the sides convex, the tip narrowed, obtuse.

Head small, with the fore part high and rounded; eyes small. Neck of moderate length. Body rather full. Feet rather short, slender; tibia bare a short way above the joint; tarsus much compressed, narrowed before and behind, covered anteriorly with numerous scutella; toes very slender, first extremely small, free, with a slight membrane beneath; second shorter than third, which is a little longer; all scutellate above, the anterior margined on both sides with lobed and pectinated membranes, which are united at the base, so as to render the foot nearly half-webbed, the outer web much longer than the inner. Claws very small, compressed, arched, obtuse, that of the middle toe with an inner sharp edge.

Plumage soft and slender, the feathers on the back and wings somewhat distinct. Wings long and pointed; primary quills tapering, but rounded, the first longest, the second a little shorter, the rest rapidly graduated; secondary quills rather short, obliquely truncate, the inner tapering and elongated, so as nearly to equal the longest primaries when the wing is closed. Tail of moderate length, much rounded, of twelve feathers.

Bill greenish-yellow, black at the point. Iris brown. Feet pale greyish-blue. Upper part of the head black; loral space and chin blackish-grey; sides of the head, and a band round the occiput, white. Sides and fore part of the neck, breast, abdomen, and lower tail-coverts deep orange-red. Fore part of the back, scapulars, and inner secondaries, black, the feathers edged with whitish; wing-coverts deep ash-grey; quills dark greyish-brown, their shafts and basal parts white; the ends of the secondary and primary coverts, and the basal part of the outer webs of the primaries, being white, a band of that colour is seen on the wing when it is extended. Upper tail-coverts orange-red; tail deep grey, darker towards the end, slightly tipped with reddish.

Length to end of tail 7 1/2 inches, to end of claws 6 3/4; extent of wings 13; wing from flexure 5; tail 2 3/4; bill along the back 11/12, along the edge of lower mandible 1 1/12; tarsus 10/12; middle toe 10/12, its claw (1 1/2)/12.

Adult Female in summer.

The female has the upper part variegated with light red and brownish-black, the central part of each feather being of the latter colour, the upper tail-coverts entirely of the former. Wings greyish-black, with a transverse white band; tail, deep grey as in the male. The lower parts are of a less pure red than those of the male, being paler and tinged with grey.

Adult in winter.

The winter plumage of the adult is very different in colour. The bill is nearly black, the feet as in summer. The upper part of the head, cheeks, fore part and sides of the neck, breast, abdomen, lower and upper tail-coverts, and a band across the wing, are white; a brownish-black line from the eye to the occiput, which is of the same colour, as well as the middle of the hind neck. The back, scapulars, and inner secondaries, are ash-grey, the wings as in summer.

Length to end of tail 7 1/2 inches.

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