- Minnesota Breeding Bird Distribution
- Breeding Habitat
- Population Abundance
- Literature Cited
A regular breeding resident and migrant, the Wilson’s Phalarope was a rare species during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (MNBBA).
The Wilson’s Phalarope’s primary breeding range is restricted to the northwestern region of North America, from central British Columbia south to northern California and east through the Great Plains. Small, localized populations are found in the Great Lakes region and at other scattered sites in the United States. Within the area surveyed by the federal Breeding Bird Survey (BBS), phalarope populations are most abundant in the northern Great Plains, including North Dakota, north-central Montana, and southern Saskatchewan (Figure 1).
Ranked as a species of Least Concern by the U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan Partnership and assigned a Continental Concern Score of 10/20 by Partners in Flight; officially classified as a state Threatened Species in Minnesota and designated a Species in Greatest Conservation Need by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
A long-distance migrant that winters in South America.
Feeds on aquatic invertebrates obtained by probing the mud surface, and while swimming, by spinning in a circle to create a small whirlpool that brings prey items to the water’s surface.
A shallow, ground scrape lined with vegetation.
The Wilson’s Phalarope is one of Minnesota’s most striking shorebirds. In 1932 Roberts described the species as a summer resident restricted to southern and western Minnesota. Confirmed nesting reports (nests with eggs or downy young) were reported from Jackson County in the southwest, east to McLeod and Hennepin Counties, and north to Polk and Marshall Counties. Although the species was considered common at Leech Lake in 1902 and 1903 and in Kittson County in 1929, no nests were found. Regarding its abundance, Roberts’s own words are most apt:
Previous to about 1900 it was an abundant summer resident throughout the southern and western parts of the state, every large slough or shallow lake harboring many pairs during the nesting season Then, for some not very evident reason, it almost entirely disappeared over much of this region for fifteen or twenty years. . . . Just as it seemed that it was about to become a bird of the past it began to reappear and has steadily increased until now it is back again over much, if not all, of its former range, though it is still far short of the old-time abundance.
Not only had it returned to the central and northwestern regions of the state, but a few pairs even returned to nest “in the immediate vicinity of Minneapolis” (Roberts 1932), a city that was rapidly expanding its outer boundaries.
Forty years later, Green and Janssen (1975) described the Wilson’s Phalarope as a summer resident throughout central and western Minnesota, yet “very scarce in many areas.” Their distribution map delineated a breeding range that included all but south-central, southeastern, north-central and northeastern Minnesota. Nesting had now been confirmed in 14 counties, including 2 records in eastern Minnesota in Aitkin and Anoka Counties. Considered most abundant in northwestern Minnesota, the phalarope’s status south of the Minnesota River was unclear. The most recent breeding record was from Lac qui Parle County in 1948. Breeding season observations farther south, in southwestern and south-central Minnesota, had not been reported during the 20th century, despite Roberts’s earlier comments regarding its abundance.
A few years later, Janssen (1987) accompanied the Wilson’s Phalarope account with a more restricted range map. With the exception of Lac qui Parle and Lincoln Counties, where nesting had been confirmed in 1978 and 1979, respectively, all of southern Minnesota was excluded. Instead the species’ breeding range was now confined largely to northwestern Minnesota, stretching as far east as Aitkin and Morrison Counties. Notable in recent years were increasing numbers of phalarope reports in north-central Minnesota associated with the increase in local wild rice cultivation. Janssen also identified 8 counties where nesting had been confirmed since 1970: Aitkin, Big Stone, Lac qui Parle, Lincoln, Mahnomen, Marshall, Morrison, and Polk. Hertzel and Janssen (1998) later added 3 more counties to the list: Anoka, Lake of the Woods, and Wilkin.
Beginning in the late 1980s, fieldwork undertaken by the Minnesota Biological Survey (MBS) detected 69 breeding season locations. In addition to known localities in Lac qui Parle and Lincoln Counties, new breeding season observations were documented south of the Minnesota River in Brown, Murray, and Nobles Counties. Records were also found in Anoka County and in several central counties, including Douglas, Morrison, Stearns, and Todd (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 2017).
Far fewer breeding season records were found nearly 20 years later by MNBBA participants. Only 31 phalarope records were reported in 28 of the surveyed atlas blocks and in 10 of the priority blocks. Breeding was confirmed in 4 blocks in widely dispersed counties: Lac qui Parle, Lake of the Woods, Polk, and Stearns (Figures 2 and 3; Table 1). The birds were observed in 18 of Minnesota’s 87 counties.
Northwestern Minnesota remains the region with the greatest number of records; 21 of the 28 atlas blocks with records occurred in northwestern counties located north of the Minnesota River. Records were largely absent from the greater Twin Cities metropolitan region with the exception of 1 probable record in the southwest corner of Carver County. Five of the records occurred south of the Minnesota River (Figure 2).
Unfortunately, this graceful shorebird remains a rare and sparsely distributed species in Minnesota, never having regained its widespread distribution and abundance observed during the 19th century. Its abundance also appears to have declined even further in the past 20 to 30 years. Similar changes are being noted throughout the eastern portion of its range, from Minnesota east through the Great Lakes states and south through Missouri where wetland losses have been significant. A small nesting population occurs in southeastern Wisconsin, and a few pairs occasionally nest in Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio and farther south in Iowa and Nebraska. Overall, the species is largely a localized and sporadic breeder east of the Great Plains (Rodewald et al. 2016; Russell et al. 2016). In contrast, the phalarope appears to have expanded its breeding range northward, particularly in Alaska and across Canada, from British Columbia east to New Brunswick (Colwell and Jehl 1994; Cadman et al. 2007).
*Note that the definition of confirmed nesting of a species is different for Breeding Bird Atlas projects, including the definition used by the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas, compared with a more restrictive definition used by the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union. For details see the Data Methods Section.