Yellowlegs, late and off course

Many shorebirds are also often birds of the shore. To confuse the issue further, however, there are shorebirds that do not inhabit a shore. The upland sandpiper, as its name indicates, is not a bird of shores but of grasslands. Woodcocks nest in woodlands and thickets, often wet woodlands and thickets where there is water and even a water line but no shore. Killdeers often make their nests some distance from water. A pair made their nest, such as it was, in our pasture this year and raised two broods. There is no shore in our pasture.

One of the birds we saw at the puddle was a killdeer. The other, the one in the  water, was a yellowlegs, a lesser yellowlegs we judged. It was the same height as the killdeer, its body the same length. A greater yellowlegs would be taller, its body longer but the difference would not have been easy to judge if the killdeer hadn’t been nearby for comparison.

Two shorebirds at a puddle, one, the killdeer, is a common bird, a familiar bird in spring and summer and fall over all of North America except the far north. The other, the yellowlegs, nests in the far north, the taiga, that land of scattered, stunted trees and permafrost. Its winter range is along the East Coast from Delaware south, along the West Coast from Central California south, across the southern  states and Mexico, Central and South America.

The lesser yellowlegs is not a rare bird but it is rarely seen outside its winter range except by bird watchers who look for shorebirds during migration. And then it’s rarely seen except during spring migration which for these birds is late, in July or even August.

Nesting where summer days are long, even continuous in the northern part of their range, but summer is short, lesser yellowlegs are paired before they arrive on their nesting ground. They build their nests, lay their eggs, and in late July or August the males start to migrate again even as the females are incubating. The females follow after the eggs hatch but before the fledglings are able to travel. That lesser yellowlegs we saw at the puddle must have been a young of the year, traveling along on its first journey south.

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