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Greater Yellowlegs

Common Name: Greater Yellowlegs.

Scientific Name: Tringa Melanoleuca.

What to look for?  The Greater Yellowlegs is a medium-sized, slender shorebird with distinctive long, flashy yellow legs. They have a small head atop a somewhat long neck (not Great Egret long-necked). It has a slender, slightly upturned, dark bill that is longer than the diameter of its head. Greater Yellowlegs have heavy barring on the flanks, sometimes extending across the belly, and thin, black bars across its white tail.

Where can they be found at Carillon Stonegate Pond? Sighting the Greater Yellowlegs around Carillon Stonegate Pond requires a little bit of effort and good timing (AKA luck!). Late fall, as they start their migration south, is best time of year. With a distinctive and deliberate gait, look for a Greater Yellowlegs off the muddy banks of the pond dashing after its dinner.

How big are they? The Greater Yellowlegs averages approximately twelve inches in length. And their wingspan is approximately twenty-three and one-half inches. They weigh in at around six (6) ounces.

What are their flight patterns? The flight of the Greater Yellowlegs is strong and swift, with legs extending well beyond the tail. Age at first flight probably about three weeks.

How else do they behave? The Greater Yellowlegs walks with a distinctive, high-stepping gait across the wetlands when foraging. Compared to other shorebirds, the Greater Yellowlegs is often rather solitary. On breeding grounds, the male performs a display flight, alternately rising and falling with flutters and glides as it gives a loud, ringing, whistled song. They will also capture small fish by running toward surface ripples with its bill open and lower jaw submerged, plowing the water.

What’s for dinner? The Greater Yellowlegs eats primarily aquatic invertebrates (crustaceans, snails, tadpoles, marine worms), insects and small fish. In breeding season, they feed mostly on insects and their larvae. In migration and winter, often feeds on small fishes such as killifish and minnows.

Where do they take up residence? The Greater Yellowlegs are temporary residents every where they go. In summer, they breed throughout the boreal zone of central Canada in boggy sloughs and coniferous forests with wet clearings. In Illinois and the northern Midwest, Greater Yellowlegs are summer visitors to our marshes, ponds, and wetlands. They migrate south to winter in the wetland habitats of warmer climates in the southern U.S.

When and where do they breed and nest? Greater Yellowlegs breed in inhospitable, mosquito-ridden bogs in the central boreal forests of northern Canada. They nest on the ground under a low shrub, close to the water. Due to its low densities and remote nesting areas, the breeding biology of the Greater Yellowlegs is not well studied, and much is unknown about it. Both parents probably help incubate the 4 eggs for three weeks. The young leave the nest soon after hatching and find their own food. The young are capable of fluttering flight in about four weeks and become strong flyers in approximately 40 days. Pairs raise a single brood during the breeding season.

Where do they migrate? Greater Yellowlegs are medium- to long-distance migrants. Greater Yellowlegs are seen mostly during migration, as they pass between nesting grounds in the bogs of boreal Canada and wintering territories on marshes across the southern tier of the United States. Some winter in Central America. Fall migration is prolonged and variable starting in late summer, while some birds may linger into fall. The migration pattern consists of traveling a few hundred miles in tight groups at low altitudes, resting, and then traveling again.

What is their conservation status? Greater Yellowlegs are classified as Least Concern. Since 1927, this bird has been fully protected in the United States and Canada under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Greater Yellowlegs populations seem to have been stable over the last half-century, although their northerly breeding range makes them difficult to assess. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of only 140,000.

Do they make any interesting sounds? The typical call of the Greater Yellowlegs is a clear, ringing “tew tew tew”, given in sequences of three or more. Greater Yellowlegs are known for their strident, piercing alarm calls that alert all the birds in the area. Here is a link to the sounds of the Greater Yellowlegs.

Interesting Facts About Greater Yellowlegs:

  • Greater Yellowlegs are larger than their related Lesser Yellowlegs.

  • Greater Yellowlegs is a type of sandpiper and is often referred to as a “marshpiper” for its habit of wading in deeper water than other sandpipers.

  • Yellowlegs are known to molt before and during migration, which may be the reason that the birds take breaks in their migration.

  • Greater Yellowlegs were considered an important game bird in the early 20th century and were hunted often, greatly reducing its numbers until the introduction of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918.

  • Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of only 140,000.

For more information on the Greater Yellowlegs and sources of information used in this blog (these are the sources that I am using to learn as I blog), please visit All About Birds, Audubon Society, University of Michigan Animal Diversity Web and Nature Mapping Foundation. And the Cornell Lab of Ornithology provides a wonderful source of information for anyone interested in learning more about birds.

The Carillon at Stonegate community is very fortunate to have a variety of wetland, forest and prairie environments conducive to a variety of birds and other wildlife, plants and insects. Our community and the Kane County Forest Preserve do an exceptional job in maintaining this natural environment – both for the benefit of the birds and wildlife and for our residents to enjoy.


Take a hike and see what you can find – and identify!

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