Plumage in Transition: Red Phalarope Pre-Basic Molt

by Bryce W. Robinson

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I don’t often post a large amount of photos from one subject, but I think this bird deserves the coverage. I was birding the western Alaskan coastline with my friends Neil and Ellen the other day when we found this male Red Phalarope – Phalaropus fulicarius. Even better, the bird was mid-way through its pre-basic molt, giving it a unique look. This was the first time I’d ever seen this transitional plumage. REPH_1501

The new feathers of the basic plumage are blue-grey. The old feathers of the alternate plumage are gold and black. It’s a striking difference. Also note the orange body feathers of the alternate plumage, and the white feathers of the basic plumage. These birds are so colorful during their breeding periods on the pools of the Arctic tundra, but after this short period ends they molt into a cool plumage reminiscent of their winter haunts, the open ocean and coastlines. These color changes mean something, or better put, they have context. What a satisfying process, to see a bird in a state like this male and recall that the appearance has a story (begs the question, why the difference in appearance between seasons?).

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Although the bird was midway through its molt, it is still identifiable as a male. You can see in the crown that the retained feathers are brown and gold. If it were a female, these retained feathers would be wholly black, and bold. The gold and brown around the face and on the nape also tell its sex.
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This bird was so cooperative that I was able to take my fill of photos. It’s rare to see this species in a plumage such as this, so I’m happy that I was able to capture many different angles and views, truly document the bird, and even put the camera down and simply watch. I feel spoiled with the way the birding has been lately here in western Alaska. Too many great things to see, too may things to shoot with the camera, too many experiences to write about. Just the way life should be.REPH_1505REPH_1504 REPH_1507 REPH_1509

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