Grays Harbor Birds — Greater Yellowlegs

This is a bird of fall and winter for those of us around the Harbor. I often go looking for them on the local golf course on rainy days, where those bright yellow legs make them easy to spot. They appear to be feeding on something, but none of the references indicate they eat worms.

Quite a few of the local shorebird varieties spend time on our wet golf courses, so birding can be quite interesting in the winter. The best thing is you can stay in the relative comfort of your car to watch the golf course birds; for those of you who like to play golf, here is an off-season reason to be out on the greens, or at least looking at them through the rain.

They also have a loud three to four note alarm call, which you can listen to on the Seattle Audubon site Photo credit to Gregg Thompson. Here are a few more facts about this lovely bird.

General Description: One of our larger shorebirds, the Greater Yellowlegs, is often heard before being seen; it’s distinctive call is very easily identified and can be heard over most other calls, especially as it takes off and flies. It is a large and long-legged wader, with a long, slightly upturned bill that is a gray color at this (non-breeding) time of the year, mottled gray plumage with a white belly, bright yellow legs which project well beyond the tail tip in flight, plain gray wings, and a white rump and tail.

Size: Length is 14 inches, wingspan is 28 inches, and it weighs about 6 ounces.

Habitat: Greater Yellowlegs are found in open areas in saltwater estuaries, and freshwater lakes and ponds.

Behavior: Most often seen in shallow water running after prey. They swing their heads from side to side, a technique called “scything,” stab at their prey, and sometimes even move quickly through the water with an open bill to scoop up prey, called “plowing.” They bob their foreparts as they move about, and are very alert and noisy. Fortunately they tend to be solitary or in small numbers except when roosting, when they gather in large numbers.

Diet: During winter and migration, Greater Yellowlegs feed on small fish, crustaceans, invertebrates, snails, and some seeds and berries.

Nesting: Not much is known about nesting yellowlegs due to the remote, mosquito-infested locations and low density of nesting pairs. Their breeding territory is southern Alaska and the northern half of the southern Canadian provinces, in patchy boreal spruce forests. The males arrive on territory first and stake out their area, then females arrive, they pair up, and a nest is built in a shallow depression near water. It is lined with twigs, then grass, leaves, and lichen. It is believed four eggs are laid, both parents incubate for approximately 23 days. The young are able to leave the nest and find their own food a few hours after hatching and are capable of some flight in about 25 days. The parents are believed to stay around until the young can fly confidently, at about 40 days of age.

Migration Status: In late June, the yellowlegs begin their southern migration, with many spending the winter in coastal Washington. But most winter in the southern states and on into Central and South America. They are more abundant on the coasts of these areas.

Conservation Status: The 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act has led to a recovery in the population of Greater Yellowlegs following declines due to hunting. The Christmas Bird Count indicates they are becoming more common in winter in Washington. Their continued recovery is dependent on protection of their habitat, both in their wintering grounds and throughout their migration.

When and Where to Find in Grays Harbor: Our over-wintering birds prefer the coast, and can be found in our many wetlands, marshes, and ponds. As I mentioned earlier, I often see them out on the golf course, in inclement weather of course. They are commonly seen out at the Oyhut Wildlife Area, along the edges of the sewage treatment ponds in both Hoquiam and Ocean Shores, and even in plowed fields where rain ponds have formed, back in the Monte-Brady Loop areas. Learn to identify them by their call, and you will find them in many areas not far from your neighborhood. Get out and go birding!