Friday, November 7, 2008

Solving the Spinning Bird Mystery

Quite a few years ago my husband and I worked on a job doing a wastewater treatment plant for a small town in eastern Washington. He managed the job and I did the documentation. The new, state-of-the-art plant was to replace a perfectly good lagoon system. Apparently, some federal department, anticipating that the time would come when the old system would fail, ruled that the town had to replace it themselves, or the government would replace it and charge the municipal government for it. The town leaders weren’t dummies and decided it would save money, time and heartache if they did it themselves. But, that’s another story.

We moved to the town for the year and a half that the project took, and during the building of the new plant, I lived during the day in an office trailer that sat about fifty feet from one of the old lagoons.

As I said, the old system was perfectly good, and not only was there no odor from the process, but the place was teeming with wildlife. Many kinds of birds nested nearby or dropped in to feed, and large turtles thrived there and could be seen sunning themselves on rocks all around the edge.

We arrived there in the summer and got to know all the local critters who hung around, but with the coming of fall we started having avian visitors. Some were familiar: mallards and Canadian geese and even a few swans, but others were exotic, birds of a kind I had never seen.

One day we had a flock of little birds come in and settle on the water, and as they floated they would spin around in a circle with their beaks in the water. Spin, spin, spin, all day long. I grew dizzy just watching them and wondered what kind of birds they were.

A few weeks later they left, and the next fall I was gone. I never saw these birds again, but one day I was listening to Bird Note, a program offered on KPLU, our local NPR station, and I heard about these spinning birds. They are called phalaropes, and they’re a type of sandpiper that breeds in the Arctic tundra in the summer and migrates to the open ocean for the winter. I don’t know what they were doing in Eastern Washington. Maybe their inner compass said: go to the wastewater lagoon and turn right, then over the mountains and you’ll hit the sea.

On Bird Note I learned that this bird spins around once per second. This spinning forces water away from itself, which causes an upward current bringing deeper, nourishment-laden water to the surface. As it spins, the bird opens its bill, creating another surge of water that carries food into its throat.

If you’d like to see a phalarope and hear its call, you can go to the Bird Note site. There you can find out lots of interesting things about birds. Did you know that the Great Gray Owl has eyes larger than most humans’? Did you know that an owl can rotate his head 270 degrees? Did you know that the number of ‘dees’ in a chickadee’s call signals danger?

Bird Note only lasts a couple minutes each day, but I usually try to manage my commute to work so I can hear it. If I miss it, I can always visit the web site and either read the script or listen to the podcast. You can, too. Just click here.

What a great service! Thanks, Birdnote.

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