From James Bay to Maine

Tue, 08/04/2020 - 12:30pm

It was a classic summer evening on the Maine coast. After a hot late July afternoon, the air was beginning to cool as the sun lowered in the sky, illuminating the eastern shore of the harbor so that the greens of the trees and the yellow and purple flowers in the gardens seemed to glow. Children screamed gleefully as they jumped off a dock across the way while several teens floated peacefully on their inflatable rafts.

Amid all of this, we walked along a narrow gravel beach between the dark ledges and the impenetrable prickly stand of wild roses. The tide was halfway in, creeping ever so slowly closer and closer, trying to erase even this thin strip where we walked.

That’s when we heard a familiar sound: a strident, high “kip, kip, kip.” It was a sound we hadn’t heard since May here in Maine. It was the voice of a bird that had spent the summer far to our north. This bird that had nested among spruce trees and bogs somewhere in the Boreal Forest between Alaska and Quebec.

It was a lesser yellowlegs.

We have always been admirers of yellowlegs, both lesser and greater, and have written about them before. With their long, yellow legs and loud calls, they beg to be noticed.

Unfortunately, there are other types of admirers of yellowlegs in the places where they migrate through and spend the winter. Here in the United States, more than a hundred years ago, yellowlegs were among the many species of shorebirds that were hunted in vast numbers to sell in markets and to restaurants. The signing of the Migratory Bird treaty and the subsequent passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act just over a hundred years ago put an end to that, and shorebird numbers increased. Sadly, unregulated hunting of shorebirds did not end in other parts of the flyway. Today there are still thousands of lesser yellowlegs and other shorebirds shot in places like Barbados and other parts of the Caribbean, and in some areas of northern South America.

Despite all of this, many aspects of the life history of both species of yellowlegs have not been very well documented. Luckily that paucity of information is well on its way to being rectified by a group of researchers who are focusing on learning more about the migration patterns and breeding biology of lesser yellowlegs. Most of the researchers seem to be based in Alaska, but they have marked birds across the Boreal Forest including in Alaska, the Northwest Territories, Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec.

While the marked birds have shown lots of overlap in their routes and wintering areas, the preliminary maps that we have seen show only birds marked along the shores of James Bay in northern Ontario passing through Maine in their southbound migration. The James Bay shoreline is one of the most important places in the world for southbound shorebirds to stop off and fatten up before heading farther south on their way to their wintering grounds. That means that the lesser yellowlegs captured and marked there may have actually nested somewhere far away. But despite that, it is interesting to speculate that the sprightly lesser yellowlegs that we saw last week here in Maine may have just arrived from James Bay.

Wonder if it saw any polar bears up there?

Jeffrey V. Wells, Ph.D., is a Fellow of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Vice President of Boreal Conservation for National Audubon. Dr. Wells is one of the nation's leading bird experts and conservation biologists and author of “Birder’s Conservation Handbook. His grandfather, the late John Chase, was a columnist for the Boothbay Register for many years. Allison Childs Wells, formerly of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a senior director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a nonprofit membership organization working statewide to protect the nature of Maine. Both are widely published natural history writers and are the authors of the book, “Maine’s Favorite Birds” and “Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao: A Site and Field Guide” from Cornell Press.