Monday, September 12, 2022

Episode 636 (9-12-22): Two Shorebirds That Stand Out on Their Yellow Legs

CLICK HERE to listen to episode audio (3:27).

Sections below are the following:
Transcript of Audio
Audio Notes and Acknowledgments
Extra Information
Related Water Radio Episodes
For Virginia Teachers (Relevant SOLs, etc.).

Unless otherwise noted, all Web addresses mentioned were functional as of 9-9-22.


From the Cumberland Gap to the Atlantic Ocean, this is Virginia Water Radio for the weeks of September 12 and September 19, 2022.

SOUNDS – ~2 sec – short examples of calls by Greater Yellowlegs (first) and Lesser Yellowlegs (second).

In this episode, we feature two shorebirds whose long, colorful legs are a distinctive mark.  Have a listen for about 20 seconds and see if you can guess the name shared by these two species that’s based on that characteristic.  And here’s a hint: the name rhymes with what a person eats when they get two scrambled for breakfast.

SOUNDS  - ~21 sec

If you guessed yellowlegs, you’re right!  You heard, first, the Greater Yellowlegs, and second, the Lesser Yellowlegs.  Both are known as “marsh sandpipers” or simply “marshpipers” because they’re in the family of shorebirds called sandpipers and they prefer marshes or other wetland habitats.  Greater Yellowlegs are also sometimes called “tattlers” because of their noisy alarm calls.  The two species are the only tall sandpipers in North America with legs colored bright yellow or sometimes orange.  They’re distinguished from one another by the somewhat larger size of the Greater Yellowlegs, by that species’ bigger and slightly upturned bill, and by differences between their calls.  Both species breed in the tundra or forests of Canada and Alaska, and both then migrate to spend winter in the southern United States, Mexico, Central America, or South America.  The Lesser Yellowlegs is typically found in Virginia only during migration, but the Greater Yellowlegs can be found wintering along Virginia’s coast.  These birds hunt in shallow water and on mud flats for their prey of fish, frogs, and a variety of invertebrate animals, such as insects, worms, snails, and shrimp.

If you’re visiting coastal Virginia between fall and spring and you’re watching the birds, here’s hoping you encounter some yellow-legged ones wading in shallow waters to find their food.

Thanks to Lang Elliott for permission to use the yellowlegs’ sounds, from the Stokes’ Field Guide to Bird Songs, and we let the Greater Yellowlegs have the last call.

SOUNDS – ~5 sec


Virginia Water Radio is produced by the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, part of Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.  For more Virginia water sounds, music, or information, visit us online at, or call the Water Center at (540) 231-5624.  Thanks to Stewart Scales for his banjo version of “Cripple Creek” to open and close this episode.  In Blacksburg, I’m Alan Raflo, thanking you for listening, and wishing you health, wisdom, and good water.


The sounds of the Greater Yellowlegs and Lesser Yellowlegs were from the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs-Eastern Region CD set, by Lang Elliott with Donald and Lillian Stokes (Time Warner Audio Books, copyright 1997), used with permission of Lang Elliott.  Lang Elliot’s work is available online at the “Music of Nature” Web site,

Click here if you’d like to hear the full version (1 min./11 sec.) of the “Cripple Creek” arrangement/performance by Stewart Scales that opens and closes this episode.  More information about Mr. Scales and the group New Standard, with which Mr. Scales plays, is available online at


Greater Yellowlegs, photographed at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia, August 11, 2022.  Photo by iNaturalist user kenttrulsson, made available online at (as of 9-12-22) for use under Creative Commons license “Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0.”  Information about this Creative Commons license is available online at

Lesser Yellowlegs, at Virginia Beach, Va., May 3, 2022.  Photo by iNaturalist user hikerguy150, made available online at (as of 9-12-22) for use under Creative Commons license “Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0.”  Information about this Creative Commons license is available online at


The following information is excerpted from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, “Yellowlegs,” text by Richard Carstensen (undated), updated by David Tessler in 2007, online (as a PDF) at

Mixed assemblages of small shorebirds combing our coastal wetlands in spring are likely to be accompanied by several yellowlegs, immediately recognizable by their greater size. As the “peeps” scurry over the mud and along the waters edge, the yellowlegs, with a more careful, heron-like elegance, wade out into ponds and sloughs in search of different prey.

General description: Yellowlegs can be distinguished from other shorebirds by the long, straight or almost imperceptibly upturned bill and the very long, bright yellow legs.  The neck is longer and more slender than that of most shorebirds. ...Distinguishing between the two...species of yellowlegs is more difficult.  Plumage of the two birds is nearly identical.  None of the following distinctions are completely reliable by themselves, and if possible they should be used in conjunction with each other.  When seen together, as often occurs in migration, the greater yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) stands 9-10 inches high (0.25 m), taller than the lesser yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes).  The greater yellowlegs has a somewhat thicker bill than the lesser, and it may turn upward very slightly, while that of the lesser yellowlegs is slighter and quite straight.  The calls of the two species are distinctive.  The greater yellowlegs has a louder and clearer call, often uttered in a three- or four-note sequence, ‘kyew kyew kyew,’ with a falling inflection to each syllable.  The lesser yellowlegs tends to call once or twice.  Both species of yellowlegs have a ‘yodeling’ song in addition to the better known sharp alarm calls.  This song is given either from the ground or during display flights and has been variously interpreted as ‘toowhee, toowhee,’ ‘tweda, tweda,’ or ‘whee-oodle, whee-oodle.’  It is heard both on the breeding grounds and in migration. ...

Life history: ...Fall migration begins in late July and lasts through September.  Primary routes are midcontinental (mostly west of the Mississippi River) in spring and both midcontinental and along the Atlantic coast in fall.  Wintering yellowlegs are scattered along the coasts from South America through California and Oregon.  In South America, birds concentrate where shallow lagoons and brackish herbaceous marshes lie adjacent to the outer coast.  Flooded agricultural fields, especially rice fields, have also become important.  In mild years greater yellowlegs winter as far north as southern Vancouver Island.

Behavior and feeding: The exaggerated legs of the Tringa genus are best explained by the custom of feeding in the water, often wading out beyond the belly depths of less elevated relatives.  Among shorebirds, long bills usually accompany long legs for the same reason.  The greater yellowlegs is an accomplished fisher, at times preying almost exclusively on small estuarine fishes such as sticklebacks and sculpins.  Sometimes groups of feeding yellowlegs will form lines, wading abreast to corner fish in the shallows.  Both yellowlegs, particularly the lesser, also eat invertebrates.  Adults and larvae of aquatic insects such as water boatmen, diving beetles, dragonfly nymphs, and flies are important in the diet, as are sand fleas and intertidal amphipods.  Terrestrial invertebrates such as ants,
grasshoppers, snails, spiders and worms are also taken.  In spite of the length of the yellowlegs bill, it is rarely used for probing in sand or mud.  The greater yellowlegs will swing its bill from side to side in the water; the lesser yellowlegs does not.

Both yellowlegs breed in the boreal forest and the transitions between forest and tundra in wet bogs and open muskegs. During migration, both species frequent brackish tidal sloughs and mudflats, as well as the edges of freshwater lakes and ponds.  Lesser yellowlegs occasionally swim, an unusual practice among shorebirds.  The lesser yellowlegs seems somewhat more gregarious than the greater, although both are seen in loose flocks.”


Used for Audio

Alaska Department of Fish and Game, “Yellowlegs,” text by Richard Carstensen (undated), updated by David Tessler in 2007, online (as a PDF) at

Chandler S. Robbins et al., A Guide to Field Identification of Birds of North America, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2001.

Chesapeake Bay Program, “Birds,” online at  The Greater Yellowlegs entry is online at; there was no entry for Lesser Yellowlegs (as of 9-9-22).

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, “All About Birds,” online at  The Greater Yellowlegs entry is online at; the Lesser Yellowlegs entry is online at

Hugh Jennings, “Bird of the Month: Greater/Lesser Yellowlegs,” Eastside Audubon, August 23, 2018, online at

Alice Jane Lippson and Robert L. Lippson, Life in the Chesapeake Bay, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Md., 2006.

Stan Tekiela, Birds of Virginia Field Guide, Adventure Publications, Inc., Cambridge, Minn., 2002. 

Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (formerly Department of Game and Inland Fisheries):
Fish and Wildlife Information Service, online at  The Greater Yellowlegs entry is online at; the Lesser Yellowlegs entry is online at

Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (formerly Department of Game and Inland Fisheries), “List of Native and Naturalized Fauna in Virginia, August 2020,” online (as a PDF) at

For More Information about Birds in Virginia or Elsewhere

University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, “Animal Diversity Web,” online at

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, “Birds of the World,” online at (subscription required).

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, “Merlin,” online at  This site and its accompanying mobile app allow identification of birds by photo or sound.

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, “eBird,” online at  Here you can find locations of species observations made by contributors, and you can sign up to contribute your own observations.

Virginia Society of Ornithology, online at  The Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to the study, conservation, and enjoyment of birds in the Commonwealth.

Xeno-canto Foundation, online at  This site provides bird songs from around the world.


All Water Radio episodes are listed by category at the Index link above (  See particularly the “Birds” subject category.

Following are links to some previous episodes on shorebirds.

American Avocet – Episode 543, 9-21-20.
American Oystercatcher – Episode 488, 9-2-19.
American Woodcock – Episode 462, 3-4-19.
Black-Necked Stilt – Episode 543, 9-21-20.
Killdeer – Episode 411, 3-12-18.
Piping Plover – Episode 79, 9-12-11.
Virginia Rail – Episode 530, 6-22-20.
Sandpipers Generally – Episode 315, 5-9-16.


Following are some Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs) that may be supported by this episode’s audio/transcript, sources, or other information included in this post.

2018 Science SOLs 

Grades K-4: Living Systems and Processes
1.5 – Animals, including humans, have basic life needs that allow them to survive; including that animals have different physical characteristics that perform specific functions; and animals can be classified based on a variety of characteristics.
2.4 – Plants and animals undergo a series of orderly changes as they grow and develop, including life cycles.
2.5 – Living things are part of a system.
3.4 – Adaptations allow organisms to satisfy life needs and respond to the environment.
3.5 – Aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems support a diversity of organisms.
4.2 – Plants and animals have structures that distinguish them from one another and play vital roles in their ability to survive.
4.3 – Organisms, including humans, interact with one another and with the nonliving components in the ecosystem.

Grades K-5: Earth Resources
4.8 – Virginia has important natural resources.

Grade 6
6.6 – Water has unique physical properties and has a role in the natural and human-made environment.
6.8 – Land and water have roles in watershed systems. 

Life Science
LS.3 – There are levels of structural organization in living things.
LS.5 – Biotic and abiotic factors affect an ecosystem.
LS.6 – Populations in a biological community interact and are interdependent.
LS.7 – Adaptations support an organism’s survival in an ecosystem.
LS.9 – Relationships exist between ecosystem dynamics and human activity.

BIO.7 – Populations change through time.
BIO.8 – Dynamic equilibria exist within populations, communities, and ecosystems.

Virginia’s SOLs are available from the Virginia Department of Education, online at

Following are links to Water Radio episodes (various topics) designed especially for certain K-12 grade levels.

Episode 250, 1-26-15 – on boiling, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.
Episode 255, 3-2-15 – on density, for 5th and 6th grade.
Episode 282, 9-21-15 – on living vs. non-living, for kindergarten.
Episode 309, 3-28-16 – on temperature regulation in animals, for kindergarten through 12th grade.
Episode 333, 9-12-16 – on dissolved gases, especially dissolved oxygen in aquatic habitats, for 5th grade.
Episode 404, 1-22-18 – on ice on ponds and lakes, for 4th through 8th grade.
Episode 407, 2-12-18 – on snow chemistry and physics, for high school.
Episode 483, 7-29-19 – on buoyancy and drag, for middle school and high school.
Episode 524, 5-11-20 – on sounds by water-related animals, for elementary school through high school.
Episode 531, 6-29-20 – on various ways that animals get water, for 3rd and 4th grade.
Episode 539, 8-24-20 – on basic numbers and facts about Virginia’s water resources, for 4th and 6th grade.
Episode 606, 12-6-21 – on freezing and ice, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.