Beauty, Times Two


Week after week, I watched this pair of yellowlegs as they foraged back and forth across a shallow, grassy mudflat that developed after weeks of unusually heavy rains. I never saw them fly, and I never heard them call; they were too busy plucking indeterminate creatures from the sandy mud.

While they fed, I amused myself by trying to decide if they were greater yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) or lesser yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes). There are ways for an experienced birder to distinguish between them — body size, the length of the bill, the nature of their call — but I never was certain which species I was seeing until the day something startled them. Calling to one another, they flew up and away from their buffet table.  A later comparison of yellowlegs calls convinced me they were Lesser, not Greater — but no matter which species, I found them a great delight.


Comments always are welcome.


42 thoughts on “Beauty, Times Two

  1. For novice birders one of the most difficult challenges is differentiating Lesser from Greater Yellowlegs unless the two are seen together. With a little practice it becomes relatively easy, but the absolute clincher is vocalization. Once you become familiar with the way they sound you can’t mistake one for the other. Nice flight shot, by the way!

    1. When I became aware that ‘bird-watching’ had transformed into ‘birding,’ it made sense immediately. Listening is as important as watching, and it’s such a treat to have sites like the Macaulay Library available as learning tools. I have a shot of one of these birds with its tail feathers in that fan-like spread, but I was charmed by this image of the pair, and appreciate your compliment.

  2. We could say a number of things. One is that it’s good you’ve kept up with your 2-times-table. Another is that your choice of a high shutter speed of 1/1600 did the job of stopping the birds in flight.

    1. Thank goodness there weren’t seven birds. I still have to pause for a second when multiplying by that number. I do wish I’d been a bit more prepared for the birds’ flight, so I could have captured them with more clarity. On the other hand, it pleased me that I was able to change shutter speed so quickly, instead of having to think, “Now, which dial am I supposed to turn?”

    1. I always hear the opreys, geese, sandhill cranes, and kingfishers long before I see them. The osprey call is especially thrilling — it means that the season’s changing, and they’ll be back atop the boat masts again. But all those calls of the little flitty ones in the trees and bushes? Most of the time I don’t have a clue — but I still enjoy listening.

    1. There can be many a slip betwixt the camera and the photographer — but sometimes luck offers a hand. I’m just anxious for some clear skies and sunshine. We’ve been too long in the fog and drizzle that make for poor bird photography — flowers are more forgiving. I’m glad you liked this one!

      I did see a sight I’ve never seen last Sunday — a great blue heron in full breeding regalia, with its white head feather raised. I have a record of that, though no decent photo. Maybe this next weekend I can find the bird again, and get a better image. I had no idea they would raise those head feathers.

        1. Yep at the annual Air Sea Show here in Fort Lauderdale usually in May. I love it the day before when they practice zooming over the buildings near the ocean. Love the sounds!!

    1. ‘Synchronized’ almost made it into the title, but then I started thinking about synchronized swimming, and Esther Williams, and decided I needed to go in a different direction. They really do look like the Blue Angels, though, with those identical forms — and so close to one another. It’s another example of the camera letting us see things our eyes can’t. Of course, now I’m going to be wandering around with “Freeze Frame playing in my mind. That’s not the worst thing in the world, of course.

    1. The precision reminds me of pelicans skimming across the water, with their wingtips not more than an inch above the waves. Surely someone’s studied how they do that — or how the communication among birds in flight takes place — but I’ve never thought to look for the information. It’s a beautiful sight to see, no question.

  3. This is what it looks like when you combine patience with good photography! You’ve got a keeper here, Linda. I don’t think I’ve ever seen ONE of these birdies, much less two at once!

    1. They’re not as flashy as the roseate spoonbills, or as easy to spot as the big herons and egrets, but they’re great fun to watch, and sometimes will gather in large groups. I suspect this might be a mated pair, but I had a hard enough time getting the species right, let along male and female. If they show up at the mud flat with babies tagging along, I guess we’ll know.

  4. Oooh, that photo is stunning. Glad you were able to positively id your yellow legs. Aside from the beauty of such a photo, still shots are good identification tools!

    1. I tried to identify these by the length of the bill, which is said to be about the length of the head in the lesser yellowlegs, but the birds were so busy foraging they never kept their bills out of the mud long enough for me to get a good look. The photo of them in flight gave me a way to check that out, but I was glad they decided to call out as they flew.

    1. They breed much farther north, but come here in the winter. There are other members of the sandpiper family, like the willet, that are here throughout the year. One reason I started watching this pair is that they were so accessible — their little mud flat was right next to the road, and they were willing to tolerate me getting out of the car.

  5. What perfect formation these two birds are flying. Lesser or greater, they look very nice to me. We have enormous flocks of corellas flying about. When I say enormous, there are hundreds of them! I thought the fox got to the chickens again next door. The feathers on the street came from those birds, they are fighting or mating non-stop, rolling around the grass and hanging from overhead wiring. Running amok!

    1. I’d never heard of a corella, so of course I had to look them up. What a hoot! I found several videos of great flocks of them in various Australian cities and towns, but this one amused me no end. It shows them engaging in some of the behaviors you mentioned, and more. Those birds certainly would be better than television.
      I have a feeling precision flying isn’t the corellas’ forte.

  6. I knew these birds seemed familiar, and they are sandpipers, except the one I shot was a Tringa semipalmata (or willet). Well I guess they are all related but I never saw them flying. It’s great that you were able to catch them in flight. The willet (Tringa semipalmata) is supposed to be larger than the Tringa flavipes. They’re almost always seen on shores, and to see them flying is breathtaking.

    1. The willet is larger than both of the yellowlegs. Its differently-colored legs helped me to learn to distinguish it from those birds, although I still need to look pretty carefully. For a long time, I confused its calls with those of the black-necked stilt, although I think I have those sorted out now. Shorebirds are hard, and we have so many of them in all sizes it’s like trying to distinguish one sparrow from another. You’re right, though; seeing them in flight is wonderful.

    1. They certainly are. Wiki just told me there are forty members of the sandpiper family in Texas, so there are a lot, and this pair belongs to the family. They’re among the larger sandpipers, and I thought this was especially interesting: “Different lengths of legs and bills enable multiple species to feed in the same habitat, particularly on the coast, without direct competition for food.”

    1. Their tail feathers are especially pretty. When they’re coming in for a landing, they fan out behind them and their pattern becomes even more pronounced. You can see a hint of that in the photo. They’re one of those birds whose feather patterns seem more complex in flight than when they’re just roaming the flats and feeding.

    1. I’ve often pondered the difference between birds on the ground and in flight. Once in flight, they’re often far more graceful and attractive. They’re in their element, so to speak: even the ones who seem to have a hard time getting off the ground, like coots and cormorants.

    1. Birds, and flowers. I was sitting at the light at NASA I and 146 this afternoon, and when I looked over at the side of the road, it was glowing purple from all the vetch that’s popped out since yesterday.

      I’m convinced that birds sometimes fly just for pleasure. The pelicans that fly along the bridge into Galveston are a good example. Once they’ve gotten to Tiki Island, they turn around and head back to Galveston; then, they do it again. It has to be fun.

    1. I wish the bill of the bottom bird had been just a little higher, so it would show more clearly against the sky, but that’s nit-picky in the extreme. I was delighted to have managed this shot, and to have seen such symmetry.

  7. First, what a fantastic image this is! Good for you for catching them at that moment. Second, I sheepishly have to say I didn’t know or had forgotten there are two different Yellowlegs. When I listen, only the Greater song sounds familiar – that must be the one I used to hear on the east coast. I know we have them around here occasionally but I can’t remember hearing them, so I’ll have to pay closer attention. Thank you!

    1. Continuous shooting was the name of the game. From the time they lifted off until they were out of range, I shot about thirty frames, but only three were acceptable, and this was the best. There was another that was sharper, but when I saw the symmetry of this one, it immediately became “the best.”

      The calls and songs really do help in identification, although when a group of sandpipers of various sorts is running around, I can’t sort out the sounds. That’s when I usually go looking for flowers again.

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