It's neither the name of a Viking chieftain nor a town in New York State. The Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) is a wading shorebird related to Sandpipers and Curlews. They winter along the Pacific Northwest Coast and are common migrants in Washington's lowland wetlands and salt marshes. According to Seattle Audubon, a few may remain in this area through the winter. The solitary bird was spotted this past weekend in Wiley Slough in the Skagit River delta. Lesser Yellowlegs (T. flavipes) are smaller, seasonal migrants, but unknown in Washington this time of year.
This part of Wiley Slough is outside the barrier dike which protects the farms and homes on Fir Island. It is open to the sea and the water levels here fluctuate with the tides. At the time, the tide was outgoing and the mudflats were exposed. The dormant vegetation includes cattails and other salt marsh grasses. This is part of a restoration project (.pdf) aimed at improving Chinook Salmon habitat for the Skagit run. Birds also find this a great spot to feed on insects and aquatic animals.
Greater Yellowlegs breed across the Canadian provinces and into Alaska. While I watched this bird, he vigorously displayed, calling, bobbing, dancing and strutting. At first, I thought it might be a courtship display, but there was no other bird around that I could see. Could he have been practicing his pick up lines before heading off to Canada? Then I read that they also display when alarmed. Even though I was on the dike at least 20 meters away, that may still have been too close for comfort. Nevertheless, he chose to display and emit his piercing calls rather than abandon his patch in the mudflats.
This is another first sighting for me. With every visit, these tidal marshes always provide something new for me to discover. It is possible to hike deep into the wetlands using the Spur Dike Trail. It can be accessed at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Skagit Headquarters Unit. When you visit, be sure your Discover Pass is displayed in your vehicle.