by Frank Keim
The Greater yellowlegs, like its smaller first cousin the Lesser yellowlegs, is a shorebird that’s hard to miss. Its slender, long, bright-yellow legs and loud alarm calls, combined with its deliberate high-stepping gait and habit of dashing after its prey both on land and in shallow water, distinguish it from any other sandpiper. In the LYK Delta it is found mostly on the eastern taiga forest edges where it feeds and nests in and near the shallow waters of peat bogs, sedge and reed marshes, mudflats and ponds.
It (and its lesser lookalike) is the first shorebird to return in spring, and wastes no time in its selection of a breeding site. Males are also quick to court a female, with an elaborate rising and falling flight display while uttering an insistent high-pitched call, too-whee, too-whee, too-whee, that can be heard from a quarter mile away. If she seems receptive, he lands and runs in circles around her, stopping to pose with upraised wings before mating. Meanwhile, for a nest she makes a shallow depression in moss lined with dried leaves, lichen and grass often at the base of short coniferous trees, usually near ponds in the sparse taiga woodlands.
After laying four buffy-gray, brown-blotched eggs placed in the shape of a cross, both adults take turns brooding them. If there is a sentinel snag or tree nearby, one of them will stand guard on top of it, watching for the approach of predators. If one is sighted, both adults will instantly intercept it and hound it with their strident scolding calls, tew, tew, tew, tew! The sound alone is enough to make me leave the area. After about 23 days, the downy young peck their egg shells open, dry off and leave the nest shortly afterward. They then follow their parents to the edge of a shallow pond where they begin to feed by themselves.
They learn quickly from their parents what is good to eat and go for the gusto, catching mostly water insects and their larvae both on or just below the water’s surface. After growing a little taller they soon venture into deeper water and even try imitating their parents’ strategy of swishing the tips of their bills back and forth through the water to stir up the tiny critters hiding in the mud. Soon they’re able to eat small crustaceans, water beetles, dragonfly nymphs, crane fly larvae, worms, small land insects, and later, snails, minnows, small frogs and even seeds.
At first, the young are tended by both parents, one often perched atop a tree, and when a predator shows up, they will again swoop down on it mercilessly. The female usually leaves the family before the chicks learn to fly, and the male takes over sole responsibility for defending the young until they finally fledge and are on their own. This happens when they are about 20 days old, and they take their first successful gravity-defying leaps into the air and become these remarkable almost magical flying animals we call birds.
So, now for a few names. The Greater yellowlegs takes the same Yup’ik names as its smaller cousin, including, Nayangkayuli (meaning, “the one that’s good at greeting you”), Cenairaq (referring to its shoreline habitat), Pipipiaq (imitative of its call), Sugg’erpak (relating to its sturdier, longer bill than its lookalike), Tuntussiik, Tuntussiikaq, and Tuntussuliangalek. The last three names are still a mystery to me, although they may relate to their long caribou (tuntu)-like legs. Common English names include “Telltale,” “Tattler,” and “Yelper,” all of which refer to its strident alarm calls, and “Marshpiper,” for its habit of wading in deeper water than other shorebirds. Its scientific name, Tringa melanoleuca, is from ancient Greek tryngas (used by Artistotle 2300 years ago to describe any thrush-sized, white-rumped, tail-bobbing wading bird), and melanoleuca, Latin for dark and white. Its Spanish name is Playero Pata Amarilla Mayor, meaning, greater yellow-legged shorebird; and its French name is Grand Chevalier, or large horseman.
Compared to most other sandpipers, the Greater yellowlegs is rather solitary except during migration when it may travel in scattered small groups during the day. At night, however, for purposes of protection against predators, it roosts in fairly dense flocks with other shorebird species.
Its calls are huskier than those of its smaller cousin, the Lesser yellowlegs, matching its heftier size and longer bill.
In winter, Greater yellowlegs are found along the shallow-water shores of marshes, mudflats and ponds from the Gulf coast to the west coast of the U.S., south into Mexico, Central America, and South America.