Unidentified Flying Dinosaur: Spinners

This is your chance to identify not just a bird, but a behavior.

When we visited Lake Abert with Lockwood in August of 2011, we found these little dudes by the water’s edge, just spinning round.

You’d think they’d get dizzy, but apparently, they didn’t. Weirdest thing I’ve ever seen birds do, and they did it the whole time we were there.

I was, of course, mostly paying attention to the geology (and butterflies), but I got a few bird shots. I know there’s seagulls, but I’m not sure what else we’ve got here.


Apparently, gulls gather in the thousands, as well as many other birds. Brine shrimp, y’see. This is like one of those buffet restaurants by the highway for them.


This is one of the big stops on the Basin & Range Birding Trail. Makes me wish I was more in to birds, actually, because apparently you can find ibis there. I quite like ibis. One of my life goals now is to get a picture of an ibis with an iris, just because. Maybe I’ll even write a poem about it.

Nice of them to mention the geology. Abert Rim is, indeed, a very high fault scarp, and the lake is also huge. Also, smelly.


But very pretty. The geology’s breathtaking, and the birds are adorable, if a little odd.


Mmm, nature. Suddenly I’m hungry for chicken and shrimp…

Unidentified Flying Dinosaur: Spinners

9 thoughts on “Unidentified Flying Dinosaur: Spinners

  1. 2

    Birds spinning on water are phalaropes. They spin to bring up detritus and small amimals from the bottom, that they then pick from the surface. I’d have to dig out a bird book to be sure, but Wilson’s sounds right. In phalaropes, the male incubates the eggs and the female is more brightly coloured, but the ones you filmed were in their winter plumage.

    It looks like you’ve also got ring-billed gulls. They are a little more lightly-built than the less common (away from the coasts) herring gulls. They have a dark spot (the ring) near the end of their bills.

  2. 3

    You got me with the video; I’m glad there two posters ahead of me to identify them!

    Now for the “seagulls”: That’s kind of a generic term for a large number of species! Ring-billed gulls, as Richard Simons says, are more common inland. But the common coastal gulls around here (Puget Sound) are not Herring Gulls (black wingtips) but Glaucous Winged Gulls (gray wingtips).

  3. 4

    It was mid-August when we were there. Is “winter plumage” a catchall term, rather than meaning “not there in summer”?

    The explanation for the behavior sounds about right. They were doing this in shallow water. I’d guess their feet were just above the lake bottom.

  4. 5

    An alternative, and perhaps better, term for “winter plumage” would be “non-breeding plumage”. It’s often similar to juvenile plumage. According to Wikipedia, the female phalaropes head south after laying, leaving the males to tend the eggs and young. By August, nesting season was probably over so you’re looking at the males which are duller anyhow.

  5. 6

    Yes, Wilson’s Phalaropes feeding. The bill looks too fine for Grey Phalarope (sorry, Red Phalarope to you lot over there).
    The gulls look to be mainly Ring-billed, with one or two Western inc. first years and possibly a Herring Gull. There are also several grebes on the water, either Slavonian or Black-necked (sorry again, Horned and Eared)but they are too far away to tell.

    Cujo, descriptions of plumage are a sore point amongst birders as no-one has yet managed to a consensus about it.

    Trebuchet, I would expect Glaucous-winged to be much paler than the gulls pictured here, the first-years are definitely too dark and have a black tail band,so I think they are Western.

    I am prepared to be shot down by the experts here, though.

  6. 7

    OK, that makes sense to me. As uninformed as I am about birds, I do know that the main reason for the colorful plumage is mating. Thanks.

  7. 8

    Sorry if I wasn’t clear, I wouldn’t expect any of the gulls in this picture from an inland lake to be glaucous-winged. I only mentioned them because Richard Simons mentioned the Herring Gulls which I think are the commonest coastal gulls in California. Dana lives in Seattle (or vicinity) so the gulls she’d see the most are the glaucous-winged.

  8. 9

    I think there are two misunderstandings here as well. Not being familiar with the geography of the area I didn’t realise this was an inland lake, I thought it was a coastal waters. Also I’m not familiar with the usage the gulls make of the different habitats.

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