The Greater Yellowlegs, a splashing sandpiper on stilts

The Greater Yellowlegs

I watched this beautiful bird at the beach the other day – a Greater Yellowlegs. He flew in from the south and landed right in front of me on the beach, apparently unperturbed by my presence. Usually, when I’ve seen these birds, they are somewhat skittish and wary of noises and people, typically flying away if approached. In fact, the Seattle Audubon states they are “often the first species to sound an alarm when a perceived threat approaches” and are more shy than other shorebirds.

I never want to disturb birds while watching or photographing them, so I was rather glad this was the perfect encounter. I was already sitting silently on a washed up log when he flew in, watching him as he at first stood in the shallow water, his yellow legs poking out of the surface. Then, he circled around, cheeping, and flapped his wings in the deeper water. He made quite the splash, literally! I wasn’t quite sure what he was up to, wondering if he was spooked or snagged on something. I watched to make sure he wasn’t caught on some piece of plastic litter or having other trouble, but he eventually settled down and preened his feathers for a while before flying off to the south.

I’ve been seeing quite a few of these birds recently as they stopover at rocky coasts and beaches on their way south for the winter. They are a type of sandpiper and can be difficult to differentiate from the Lesser Yellowlegs. Right now, they are making their way south from their breeding grounds in northern Canada where they breed in marshes. While they are not endangered and have a steady population (as far as we know), they are classified as Climate Threatened by Audubon due to predicted instability of their summer range in boreal Canada. However, their winter range is predicted to vastly expand, although I can’t help but wonder if they will displace other birds in doing so like Barred Owls?

Last week, I watched a few moving through the shallow water catching small crabs to eat. They move so gracefully and effortlessly through the water when I know there are lots of crags and rocks down there that I’d be slipping and sliding on.  I still remember the first time I saw one last year up north on the island; I was very excited to meet an interesting new shorebird!

check out those yellow legs and feet underwater!
Caught a crab!

Encounters like this are what I most love about bird-watching. Quiet moments shared between just you and the bird. I often feel a connection deeper and more raw than one I might share with another human being. I feel grateful to get to watch them, even for just a little while. I wonder what they get up to when we’re not around and how much farther he has to go on his southward journey and if he’s going to make it there and back again.

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