Birds of North Carolina:
their Distribution and Abundance
Wilson's Phalarope - Phalaropus tricolor
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General Comments The Wilson's Phalarope nests in the western half of the continent, at lakes, ponds, and other wetlands in mostly arid regions; at such sites, many other waterbirds -- grebes, pelicans, stilts, avocets, gulls, and terns among them -- nest with the phalaropes. The world's other two phalarope species are essentially pelagic in migration and winter; however, the Wilson's behaves more like a yellowlegs, feeding on dry land, though at times in winter in South America they can be found on the ocean. All three phalaropes are strongly dimorphic in plumage (alternate versus basic); however, it is the female's alternate (breeding) plumage that is the more colorful, a very rare situation seen only in a few other birds. This species while in migration in the state is usually found foraging around shallow coastal fresh to brackish pools and associated flats, where its frenetic behavior chasing tiny invertebrates sets it apart from the more sedate other shorebird species. This was a scarce migrant in the state through the 1960's, but from the 1970's through the 1990's, numbers of sightings greatly increased. Sadly, since about 2000, reports have declined, likely signaling a declining breeding population, at least in the eastern portion of the range. In fact, there was nary a sighting in the state in the fall of 2015.
Breeding Status Nonbreeder
NC BRC List Definitive
State Status
U.S. Status
State Rank SZ
Global Rank G5
Coastal Plain Transient, mainly along the coast; declining over the past 20 years. Coastally, very rare in spring; in fall, now rare to very uncommon on the Outer Banks, and rare and somewhat local elsewhere, such as along the central and southern coast. In the Tidewater zone, casual (two reports) in spring and very rare in fall; farther inland, casual in spring (four published reports), and very rare to locally rare in fall. Mainly early May to late May, and mid-Jul to early Oct, with a peak in the latter half of Aug. One on 15 Jun 2015 at Fort Fisher (New Hanover) was quite out of season, and one at Pea Island (Dare) was quite early on 28-30 Jun 2023. A few scattered records into late fall and early winter -- one at New Bern on 1 Dec 1994; one in Pamlico on 7 Dec 2019; and exceptional was one at Fort Fisher (New Hanover) on 3 Jan 2010*. In early winter 2023-24, singles were noted at Mackay Island NWR (Currituck) on 9 Dec and presumably a different bird was photographed at Alligator River NWR (Dare) on 11 Dec. A published report [Chat 25:# link] of 10 at Fayetteville on 16 Dec 1960 must either be a misprint or a mis-identification, as the species is normally gone from the United States by November, and 10 is an excellent total even for the peak flight in fall. Peak counts: 18, Pea Island, 21 Aug 1978; 14, same location, 19 Aug 1989.
Piedmont Transient. Casual in spring migration, with only four reports -- 30 Mar, and 1-18 May (no Apr records); very rare to locally rare (and normally only when extensive mudflats are exposed, especially at Falls and Jordan lakes) in fall. Normal fall dates are mid-Jul to late Sep; also, one very late at Jordan Lake from 24 Oct - 2 Nov 1979. Peak counts: 8 (peak one-day count), Jordan Lake, 19-28 Aug 2002; 7 (peak one-day count), Winston-Salem, 1-10 May 1978.
Mountains Transient, mainly known from Henderson, where casual to very rare in each season. Records from this county are (all singles except as noted): on 14 May 2001, on 26 Apr 2010, 2 on 19 May 2018, and 8-10 May 2020 -- spring; and 4 after Tropical Storm Frances at Hooper Lane on 8 Sep 2004, at Hooper Lane on 30 Aug 2005, and at Hooper Lane on 26 Aug 2008 -- fall. The only other records are a very old collection record at Highlands (Macon) on 21 May 1896; and two photographed at Biltmore Estate (Buncombe) on 17 May 2018. The latter two birds may have been the same two as seen at Hooper Lane in Henderson two days later (mentioned above).
Finding Tips The species could formerly be found with some regularity only at the Pea and Bodie island ponds; now (2023) it can be hard to find -- the best spots are at Pea Island (North and South ponds) and around the tidal pond at Cape Hatteras Point. It is easiest to find from late Jul to early Sep. Inland, try at large reservoirs such as Falls and Jordan lakes (when there are mudflats).
* to **
Attribution LeGrand[2024-05-09], LeGrand[2023-10-20], LeGrand[2023-03-11]
NC Map
Map depicts all counties with a report (transient or resident) for the species.
Click on county for list of all known species.