Two ‘fyews’ Are Too Few

By Kenneth Turner Blackshaw

The whistled call fills the air. It has an almost shrill quality to it as if the birds are in a state of panic. Two birds dart across the marsh and then splash down, standing in the shallow water. They raise their wings delicately above their backs as if to stretch and then bob up and down in greeting before starting to look for food.

bv These are Greater Yellowlegs, at first glance a rather well-named bird. They are part of a group of species known as sandpipers or shorebirds. Still, they aren’t the type usually seen on the beach, running back and forth before the waves. These are more sandpipers of the marsh and mudflat.

When people start out in the hobby of birdwatching, they usually start with yard birds – birds of the feeder – birds that are fairly easily seen. With the yellowlegs, we enter a whole new arena of hundreds of species that never enter your backyard. These are species that are adapted to life at the edge of the ocean, with beaks that probe into the mud for goodies and often with long legs for wading.

Let’s examine the life of one of these Greater Yellowlegs. Right now, he is on his way north to the area where he hatched as one of four eggs, laid on the ground in the high tundra of Newfoundland. This was right at the end of June last year. Precocious, like most shorebirds, he could scamper around almost immediately upon hatching, but still needed to be fed and kept warm by his parents.

Alas, this support pattern didn’t last long though, and one day, about three weeks into his life, suddenly the folks were gone, headed south. Our young Greater Yellowlegs, too fat with baby fat and not yet a strong flier, had to spend the next three or four weeks with other ‘hatch year’ birds as the days grew shorter. Meanwhile, the adults were pursuing their more leisurely fall migration south. Early birds arrive on Nantucket by the 20th of July. So in what appears to be the middle of our summer, fall migration has started. As a young teenager, getting started in birding, I was fascinated and excited by the fact that fall migration was happening in the middle of summer, because that meant that the bird world was changing and I could look forward to something new almost every day!

Our young yellowlegs arrived here on Nantucket in late August or September. He was traveling on ‘autopilot’ now because this was his first trip. Nantucket, over 800 miles into his journey already, was just the beginning. He was on his way down to Patagonia, in southern Argentina, to spend the winter months. He was really putting on body fat here because most Greater Yellowlegs take off from the northeastern U.S. and fly all the way down to the West Indies. Many pass through Bermuda on the way.

So, the Greater Yellowlegs we are seeing in the spring are world travelers. Some are on their first round trip. Others are veterans. A good place to see them on Nantucket is the Harbor Flats, near the future ‘Great Harbor Yacht Club’ at low tide. Yellowlegs are smaller than gulls, fourteen inches from beak to tail. They are mainly gray above and white below, with the striking yellow legs, which extend beyond the tail in flight. They can wade in fairly deep water and feed quite actively, chasing minnows around and catching them in their beaks. In flight, look for a solid gray back contrasting with a white rump, and a barred tail.

There is a closely related species, the Lesser Yellowlegs which is – smaller! However that is only useful when the two species are together, which happens too infrequently. So, more subtle tools come into play. The Greater Yellowlegs has a, longer, heavier bill, which usually looks to be upcurved. When feeding, Greaters tend to swing their beaks from side to side in the water, in a sort of seining method. And the calls are distinctive. That’s where the ‘fyew’s come in. Lessers call one or two times -- Greaters generally more than that. A three-note, fyew-fyew-fyew call is distinctive.

So, if you go to the beach, take your binoculars, or better yet, a spotting scope. You may run into some Greater Yellowlegs. There are many other shorebirds passing through right now, but just look for the gray ones with the long yellow legs. Imagine the long distances they cover every year, and be thankful they have once again, chosen to stop on Nantucket.

George C. West creates illustrations for these articles.

The Maria Mitchell Association sponsors bird walks every Saturday, leaving at 8 a.m. from the Hinchman House on at the corner of Milk and Vestal St. There is a fee. Call 228-9198 for more information.

To hear about rare birds, or to leave a bird report call the Massachusetts Audubon hot line at 888-224-6444, option 4.