Shorebirds Stopping by

A large Greater Yellowlegs shorebird wading through shallow water looking for prey while at times stopping to probe the mud with its’ long bill.

April 16, 2020 – When the spring rains create temporary flooded pools in the agricultural fields, pastures, and on the low well saturated land of restored prairies here in Northern Illinois, the migratory shorebirds large and small will show-up tired and hungry. A variety of shorebird species are working their way across Illinois this time of year. These birds must feed and rest and sometimes wait for the right weather conditions as they instinctively know when to continue the push north. The mudflat-like edges surrounding the flooded slow draining areas in the fields are the perfect habitat where these birds can find the tiny worms, mollusks, and insects that are important to rebuild their depleted energy. Building up fat reserves and resting is key to the survival for both medium and long distance migrants as they pass through on their challenging springtime journey, moving to their northern summer nesting areas. Many of the shorebirds travel great distances to reach their nesting areas on the high Arctic tundra. Pectoral Sandpipers spend the winter on the wetlands and agricultural areas of South America but they nest many thousands of miles north on the sometimes cold springtime Arctic tundra. Here in Illinois we see many flocks, some quite large, of the Pectoral sandpipers using the flooded fields to rest and feed as they work their way north. The sandpipers stay together in and around the flooded wet spots feeding, preening and occasionally taking to the air when a bird of prey comes too close. Flying in a tight pattern the birds circle back and forth until all is clear and then quickly return to the same wet spot to continue their feeding. The much larger Greater Yellowlegs has longer legs than the Pectoral Sandpiper and are often in deeper water searching for prey. The Greater Yellowlegs migrates a shorter distance than the Pectoral. They spend the winter on the Atlantic coast, the Gulf coast, Florida, Mexico, Central and South America. The Greater Yellowlegs nest across Canada just south of Arctic Circle and on the coastal areas of Southwestern Alaska. Those are just two species that are fairly easy to identify during the northern movement, there are many others to watch for in these short-lived shallow pools that temporarily linger in the fields. Some of these shorebirds are quite small, others are in their impressive breeding plumage, sometimes there are rare species, but one thing is for sure they all are in need of food and rest as they still have many miles ahead.

A Pectoral Sandpiper plucks a small snail out of the water and quickly swallows it.

The Greater Yellowlegs Sandpiper

Greater Yellowlegs Sandpiper

Greater Yellowlegs Sandpiper

April 14, 2017 – The Greater Yellowlegs Sandpiper is considered a medium sized shorebird standing up to 15 inches tall, they are an elegant long-legged wader that is a migrant through our part of the Midwest in the spring and in the fall. Currently they are on their spring migration and we can find the birds in the flooded fields and the shallows of ponds and lakes as the Midwest becomes a staging area for many shorebirds including the Greater Yellowlegs as they head into Canada where they will spend the summer months, the breeding season, on the marshy areas and the tundra from southern Alaska to Newfoundland. I was able to watch six Greater Yellowlegs and five Lesser Yellowlegs feeding in a small flooded area south of Herscher.

Greater Yellowlegs

Greater Yellowlegs

The Lesser Yellowlegs looks very similar to the Greater Yellowlegs but are noticeably smaller when observed side by side, The Greater Yellowlegs has a 26 inch wingspan and certainly appears somewhat lanky as it steps through the shallows with those long yellow legs. All of the birds in the group were moving mostly the same direction as they waded through the shallow water with some zigzagging, some darting and even crossing each others path. The Greater Yellowlegs would appear to push the Lesser along if it slowed its’ progress. At times the birds would pause to stick their faces and that long slightly turned up bill into the water and with a swiping motion they would move their heads side to side as they searched for prey. The birds seemed to have one thing in mind and that was to find food, many of these birds have come a great distance and still have a long way to go as they make their way to the nesting grounds. The Greater Yellowlegs spends the winter months along the coasts of North America from New York to California including the Gulf of Mexico and Central and South America. Even though their population is believed to be stable the loss of habitat in the winter range is the biggest threat to the Greater Yellowlegs