Fall Comes Early for Sandpipers migration

By Jay N. Huner
Journal Correspondent

Birders look forward to fall as the birds that came through the piney woods region in the spring will be returning with their offspring. However, fall migration for sandpipers begins in July NOT September in keeping with the calendar.

There are two common, conspicuous sandpipers in our region. Both are reasonably large compared to the small sandpipers we frequently see flittering around mucky areas and beaches. So, both the Greater Yellowlegs and the Lesser Yellowlegs are pretty conspicuous not only based on size but also because they are very vocal and abundant.

It is relatively easy to separate the two species based on size when they are foraging with each other in shallow mud flats, especially in fields used for rice and crawfish. However, if the species are separate, close attention, is necessary to identify them. They both have gray backs speckled with white, white bellies, and distinct white rumps clearly visible in flight.

The bill of the Lesser Yellowlegs is much shorter, sharper, and straight, not slightly upturned like that of the Greater Yellowlegs. When only one species is present, you can look for other birds in the area to gauge size. Also, both species are very vocal, especially when predators frighten the birds into flight. [As an aside, if you are around any congregation of shorebirds and they flush wildly, LOOK for either a Merlin or a Peregrine Falcon hunting a meal!]

The late Grand Old Professor of Louisiana Ornithology George Lowery, Jr., described the calls of the two yellowlegs as follows. "....The call of the Greater has been described as a three- or four-syllable whistle whew-whew-whew-whew, or dear-dear-dear. The corresponding call of the Lesser is a flatter cry of one or two notes, cu, or cu, cu...."

Well, guess what? Lots of sandpipers look alike, especially in the fall when most are in non-breeding plumage and basically gray and white. However, the yellowlegs are aptly named. Their legs are really "yellow". The sandpipers that look similar to the yellowlegs do not have yellow legs. The closest long-legged sandpipers Solitary and Stilt sandpipers have greenish-yellow legs and their calls are far different from those of the yellowlegs.

Both yellowlegs breed in the arctic where there are often stunted evergreen trees. Several years ago, I finally got to see males of both species in Alaska exhibiting breeding display flying high above the ground and fluttering downward while calling. I also observed male Lesser Yellowlegs flying to the tops of trees 20-30 feet above the ground something I had never seen before, a sandpiper in a tree.

The yellowlegs like all other sandpipers and shorebirds with the exceptions of Wilson's Snipe and American Woodcock which are game species are fully protected by state, national and international laws. This was not always the case with great flocks of shorebirds being shot both for market sales and "sport" before the early 1900s. Most species have not really recovered from that decimation but both of our yellowleg species are in good condition.

Jay V. Huner
Louisiana Ecrevisse
428 Hickory Hill Drive
Boyce, LA 71409
318 793-5529 / piku1@suddenlink.net\