Friday 16 February 2024

Frampton's Lesser Yellowlegs 14th February 2024

A Lesser Yellowlegs, a North American wader superficially similar to our Common Redshank which arrived at the RSPB's  Frampton Marsh reserve in Lincolnshire last September has remained there for the winter. 

It has provided very good views lately, having chosen to spend time resting and feeding on a flash of floodwater close to and adjacent to the reserve's small car park and Visitor Centre and shows little fear of the comings and goings of both cars and birders. Indeed on recent occasions it has frequented the flooded areas of the car park itself.

Lesser Yellowlegs are reasonably frequent vagrants to western Europe with around five per year being found in Britain, mainly between August and October.Wintering birds are less usual. They breed in the boreal forest regions of North America from Alaska to Quebec and spend the winter  on the Gulf Coast of the USA, the Caribbean and South America. I have seen them on birding trips to both Ecuador and Colombia and have seen eight in various parts of Britain.

February can be a dull month for birding although this winter has been much enlivened by the invasion of Waxwings. However there are only so many Waxwings to see before the novelty begins to fade. Mark rang me earlier in the week and suggested we find a day when it was not raining and go to Frampton to photograph  the Lesser Yellowlegs (The Legs) and do some general birding at what is by mutual consent one of our favourite reserves.

Checking the weather forecast I suggested Wednesday (Valentines Day) that promised light cloud and no rain which would be ideal. Mark volunteered to drive, so early on Wednesday morning I made my way to his house in Bedfordshire for a not too onerous 8am rendezvous.

It's two hours to Frampton from Mark's house and making one stop for his obligatory double espresso and my latte  we eventually entered into the flat, featureless landscape of Lincolnshire with its vast, bare acres, stretching away on either side of the straight monotonous road that bisect this part of eastern England. Like a giant lid clamped firmly over the flat landscape the lowering, unbroken grey cloud possibly foretold rain but it came to nothing as, at the end of a narrow lane, we left the car in a very wet and muddy car park by the RSPB's small Visitor Centre and Cafe.

The Legs was not hard to find as we could see several birders that were obviously looking at it from the wire fence that separated the car park from a flash of shallow water. On the other side of the water was a protective bund that currently provided a buffer from the strong but mild southwest wind and in the lee of which not only The Legs but various ducks such as Wigeon, Teal and Shoveler found shelter. 

Initial impressions of The Legs were of a bird  with an ash grey head tucked into similar coloured upperparts, asleep and standing on one long, bright yellow leg.

Beyond the bund lay yet more flooded fields and marshland populated by many Lapwings, round shouldered in repose, hunched silently and stoically against the wind, the distance and low light rendering them as a line of black silhouettes.

The reserve is large, a benign desolation of partially flooded flat fields and lagoons of shallow water and for me at least was a welcome wild and natural place to visit after the earlier drudgery of driving on busy roads to get here.  The fields, today were populated by huge numbers of Golden Plover and yet more Lapwings, the goldies flying in one flock, thousands strong, a starburst of feathered beings like a ghost moving at great height across the grey skies, while the less aerial Lapwings regularly took to the air in false alarm, their peevish cries borne away on the wind before gently returning to earth, in an alternation of black and white.
It was not a cold wind that blew into our faces thus making it bearable to remain standing out in the open. We stood awaiting The Legs to rouse itself but apart from awaking with a start to briefly indulge in nibbling at an irritating feather or moving out of the way of a blundering Wigeon or clumsy Shoveler, it remained steadfastly asleep at the water's edge below the bund. 

To while away the time I admired the ducks swimming about on the flash. Remarkably confiding for truly wild birds, they seem to know they are safe from human threat here and consequently show relatively little fear. 

Handsome Wigeon drakes, sumptuous in their pastel colours, punctuated the air with loud whistles while pocket sized Teal, squat, rotund and equally colourful, contributed their peculiar cricket like calls. I reflected on how few ducks actually quack. Only female Mallards and Gadwalls indulge in the traditional loud 'quack'

Shovelers, the males fabulously coloured, you could almost call them exotic, and with an enormous black spatulate bill, rarely make a sound but when the drakes fly their wings produce a distinct loud whirring or humming sound, more so than other duck species.

After an hour and with no indication  The Legs was about to leave the land of nod we thought better of it and retired to the Cafe for a coffee. A sensible move as it was possible to sit inside by a window and keep an eye on The Legs in case it woke up and started moving about. Half an hour later we returned outside to resume looking longingly at the sleeping bird, willing it to move but it showed no indication it was about to co-operate.

The ducks, in the meantime provided endless entertainment, a support act if you like but the star turn was still not ready to participate. We returned to the Cafe for another coffee. It was now approaching three hours that The Legs had been, for the most part asleep.Would it ever wake up?

A RSPB volunteer cheerily told us how well it had been showing earlier in the morning prior to our arrival. Birders are used to this, it happens all too often and I have even done it myself. We try to put on a brave face but it can be very annoying. 

Sat in the Cafe, Mark for the umpteenth time checked on The Legs with his bins. 

It was not under the bund!

A quick scan revealed it was feeding very close to the car park fence and here was our opportunity to make our long wait a successful one. A mild panic ensued as I endeavoured to finish my soup and roll as fast as possible. Mark grabbed his camera and bins and made for the door with me following in some disarray. 

A volunteer laughed as we made haste for the door, having obviously seen this behaviour before

Yellowlegs woken up has it lads?

Outside we quickly crossed the few yards to the fence and there in all its loveliness was The Legs wandering across the flooded grass picking items from the waterlogged ground. 'Legs' is an apposite nickname as its bright yellow legs are what catch your eye. Long, both above and below the knee with thin delicate toes they supported a slim tapered body that made its way through the water with no little grace and poise  as it searched for food.

A supremely elegant bird that from  a distance appeared ash grey above and white below but when seen closer, the intricate patterning on its upperparts and the thin black bars on its white tail  became readily apparent. Its movements were almost balletic at times as it extended its legs, even crossing them as it pirouetted to snatch a morsel from the water. Slimmer than a Redshank it was the long legs that imparted that extra refinement.

Others joined us but we were never more than half a dozen in number, watching and photographing. It has been here so long that most people with a mind to see it have already done so. A grey, inauspicious Wednesday probably also helped to quell the numbers of visitors too.

For ten maybe fifteen minutes it held the stage as it paraded before us, so very close at times and apparently not bothered by us edging even closer to it. 

It was joined by a Ruff, dumpier in form, appearing slighty hunch backed, shorter and thicker legged it was no contest as to which was the belle of the ball. The Legs eventually flew further out onto the flooded fields but soon returned to go to sleep by its favourite bund.

The Lesser Yellowlegs and a Ruff

We waited another hour for it to wake up which it eventually did but after a vigorous and extended session of bathing and preening, a panicked flock of Wigeon that had so recently been cropping the grass nearby took fright and.flew further out onto the reserve taking The Legs with them.

It was three in the afternoon and clouds were gathering so we reluctantly took our leave of The Legs and the pleasant reserve it currently graces.

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