Greater or Lesser Yellowlegs? Look at the Bill

When I went to help with the Fish Bay beach cleanup last Saturday I noticed that a few of the island’s migratory shore birds were back from their breeding areas up north – and were taking the time to pick up a few things themselves along the shoreline.

The color of their long legs was a giveaway – but were they greater or lesser yellowlegs? Sometimes it’s not so easy to tell. Lesser yellowlegs are usually about 10 to 11 inches tall, while the greater ones are slightly stockier and range from 11-15 inches tall. Not a very clear distinction.

yellowlegs-picture1 yellowleg-picture-2

My birding buddy, Kathy, told me to look at their bills. For the lesser yellowlegs, the bill is supposed to be about the same length as the size of its head. The greater ones have bills that are about 1.5 times the size of their heads, and are somewhat thicker and blunter. Unfortunately you aren’t always close enough or at the right angle to get a clear look at their profiles.

They sound a little bit different too, if you have a chance to hear them. You can compare their calls here:


Overall, you will see more of the lesser yellowlegs on St. John, so that is usually my first guess. Both types breed in the far north in the summer then move back south, but greater numbers of the lesser yellowlegs seem to stay on and spend the winter on St. John.

Though both types can be seen in freshwater or saltwater habitats, I have mostly seen groups of lesser yellowlegs in the shallow freshwater ponds around Fish Bay.


Though they have also enjoyed picking through the rich treasure trove of tidbits that arrive when the sargassum seaweed piles up along the shoreline.


Gail Karlsson HeadshotAll photos provide by Gail Karlsson. Gail is an environmental writer and photographer, and author of The Wild Life in an Island House.