Quoddy Nature Notes – Yellowlegs

I knew from the distance that it was a Greater Yellowlegs. The old time market hunters called him the ‘Tell-Tale’, the wary bird that would loudly call out his ‘Teeoo, teeoo, teeoo, teeoo’ and alert every other bird around as he flew out of range. I figured I would play the wind and position my kayak upwind of him and if I judged everything right the breeze would nudge me into the range of my Nikon Coolpix . At 100 feet he was getting noticeably nervous, but then an immature Merlin came zipping down at him. The Yellowlegs cried out and flew towards me and landed behind a rock as the Merlin flew up to a nearby dead tree and waited. The Merlin apparently wanted his would-be dinner to take flight. Although the Yellowlegs is a good flier, it is no match for the Merlin, but somehow the Yellowlegs knew this and felt safer on the ground within 25 feet from me. I watched him through my viewfinder and snapped a few pictures until the Merlin tired of the game and left. Even then the Yellowlegs refused to fly, and clumsily swam back to his original breakfast spot on the shore. I thanked him for the little visit and paddled off looking for some other adventures in nature.

The Greater Yellowlegs, Tringa melanoleuca, is relatively common here in the Quoddy region this time of year. As its name implies, it has long yellow legs, and is more wary than its smaller cousin who is half the weight and a couple of inches shorter. My Yellowlegs probably nested on the ground in some remote muskeg bog in Northern Canada, and is heading south to spend the winter anywhere from southern US to Brazil or Chile. It likes to forage in the mud or the shallows of fresh or salt water for critters like small fish , crustaceans or snails or anything else or the right size. Yellowlegs do not migrate in big flocks, and its southern migration will be sort of erratic and generally along the coast. Next Spring it will come ‘home’ generally by an inland route like the Mississippi Flyway, and somehow find his or her last year’s spouse. There are an estimated 100,000 Yellowlegs in North America and their breeding grounds range in a band from Newfoundland to the Pacific coast. Nuttal, reporting in 1891, wrote that Yellowlegs nested in the Midwest as far south as Iowa and Southern Illinois. Yellowlegs are native to North America, but have been spotted in Europe, Asia and Africa.

In the days of the market hunters the preferred table fare was Plover, Dowitcher, Yellowlegs and Eskimo Curlew. By 1850 the populations of these birds dropped dramatically, and the market hunter went after the ‘Peeps’, like Dunlins and Sandpipers, but still pursued the bigger birds if available. This was done with decoys and whistles and it was noted “…the Yellowlegs can be called as far as the hunter’s whistle can be heard, and it is seldom they refuse to be drawn to their destruction.” By the early 1900’s a movement was started to protect shorebirds and Forbush (1912) noted that “…protection that (Yellowlegs) receive on Anticosti Island has done much to keep up the numbers of those which migrate through New England.” President Wilson in 1918 emphasized the rulings of migratory game birds and by 1927 the Greater Yellowlegs was protected from hunting, and their numbers seem to be slightly increasing.

So is my Yellowlegs home free? No siree! He has to worry about all sorts of pesticides, habitat destruction, mutant viruses, Peregrine falcons, Merlins, habitat destruction and if the old lady will remember to jog left over Wisconsin so they can meet up in Saskatchewan. Jeez! Why last year she got to gossiping with her cousin and came home over a week late after ending up somewhere in Ontario.