Encounter with a Yellowlegs

Lesser Yellowlegs

Lesser Yellowlegs

Because Shirley’s Bay and Mud Lake have been so fantastic, I’ve been spending most of my birding time there; I hadn’t been to Jack Pine Trail in a while, so on Saturday I made it my first stop of the day. It was a beautiful morning, and I was looking forward to seeing how the woods have changed and what new species had arrived since my last visit nearly a month ago.

The leaves had almost completely turned yellow, giving the woods a warm, golden beauty which utterly charmed me and buoyed my spirits. I found a few White-throated Sparrows in the woods, suggesting that they were migrants rather than the summer residents which breed in the meadow. During migration, these sparrows are found in large numbers in the woods eating seeds dropped on the trail. One sparrow at the edge of the marsh on the north side of the trail, however, kept scolding me with a series of chip notes whose tone reminded me of a Red Squirrel’s vocalizations. This suggests to me that this particular individual was in fact a resident defending its territory. Migrant White-throated Sparrows usually make high-pitched “tseep” notes while they forage, perhaps to maintain contact with each other.

A few notable species seen on my walk included Northern Flicker, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Cedar Waxwings, Dark-eyed Juncos, and an Ovenbird foraging on the ground at the edge of the trail. At the main boardwalk I found the usual ducks and a pair of Blue-winged Teals in the water, and two Blue Jays and a Red-breasted Nuthatch feeding on seeds left on the boardwalk rail for the chickadees.

Blue Jay

Blue Jay

Two Lesser Yellowlegs were also foraging in the marsh. This is a good place to see them up close, probing the bottom of the swamp for food. Most of the time they pay no attention to observers on the boardwalk, and if you’re still and quiet they may come within a couple of feet of the boardwalk….or even land on the boardwalk rail! Unfortunately there was a group of children hanging out at the marsh, feeding the ducks. Although two more yellowlegs flew in and joined the pair already in the marsh, the noise and the activity caused them to quickly fly off. One individual, however, seemed completely oblivious of all the miniature Homo sapiens vociferus chatting on the boardwalk and quietly went about his business.

Lesser Yellowlegs

Lesser Yellowlegs

I watched him wade through the water, searching for food, his signature yellow legs bright and unmistakable. This sandpiper feeds on aquatic and terrestrial invertebrates – flies and beetles in particular, although snails, worms, spiders and naiads (the aquatic larval form of certain insects, such as dragonflies), small fish and seeds also form part of this species’ diet. It finds food by walking erratically through shallow water, picking up food it encounters by probing or sweeping its bill back and forth in the water like a scythe, stirring up prey like an Avocet.

Lesser Yellowlegs

Lesser Yellowlegs

The Lesser Yellowlegs breeds up north in scattered, shallow wetlands in the boreal forest. It often uses large clearings or burned areas near ponds, and will nest as far north as the southern tundra. During migration and winter, it can be found along coasts and lake shores or in marshes and mudflats. Like many shorebirds, the Lesser Yellowlegs migrates south earlier than most of the songbirds. Their young require less parental care, and as such, adults depart from their breeding grounds in mid-July while the juveniles typically leave in late July or early August. Adults who did not breed successfully leave even earlier in June and begin showing up in Ottawa in July.

Lesser Yellowlegs

Lesser Yellowlegs

While the Lesser Yellowlegs is very similar in appearance to the Greater Yellowlegs, surprisingly, the two aren’t closely related. In fact, the much larger and dissimilar Willet is much more closely related to the Lesser Yellowlegs than the Greater Yellowlegs! Distinguishing the two yellowlegs species can be very difficult for a beginner. Although the Greater Yellowlegs is much larger, size is often difficult to determine if there are no other species present to provide a frame of reference. One of the key features to identifying the yellowlegs is bill length. On the Lesser Yellowlegs, the bill straight and sharp and is about the same length as its head. On the Greater Yellowlegs, the bill is slightly upturned and is longer than the length of its head.

Lesser Yellowlegs

Lesser Yellowlegs

After feeding, the yellowlegs stopped and preened himself for a while. I enjoyed hanging out in the marsh with this cute little sandpiper; it is an experience I won’t soon forget.

Lesser Yellowlegs

Lesser Yellowlegs

The Blue-winged Teals were less willing to venture close, but I still managed to get a few photos of them. This species is one of the first ducks to migrate south in the fall and the last to arrive in the spring.

Blue-winged Teal

Blue-winged Teal

While watching the ducks and the shorebirds, a small songbird darting in and out of the cattails next to the boardwalk caught my attention. I put the camera down and concentrated on getting a good look at it; when it finally popped out into the open I was surprised to see it was a Marsh Wren! I have never heard (or seen) this species at Jack Pine Trail before, and was extremely pleased to finally see my first one this year!

I left the busy boardwalk and continued my way to the back of the trail. In the large pond I found three Green-winged Teals and a phoebe perching in a tree beside the little bench. I heard a couple of Swamp Sparrows singing and, further along the trail, I found my first White-crowned Sparrow of the fall.

The birds that I saw on my walk were truly indicative of the changing seasons; summer breeders and fall migrants were foraging together with the year-round residents. Soon the insect-eaters like the phoebe and flicker will be gone, and sparrows will be moving through in large numbers. In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy this weather while it lasts!

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