I photographed a lesser yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) at Woodbridge Lake, Evans, Georgia last weekend. I was thrilled to see this transient species in such an unexpected locality. Lesser yellowlegs and many other species of sandpipers spend the winter in South America, Florida, and the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina, but they migrate to their summer breeding grounds in western Canada during spring. The present day breeding grounds of 22 American species of sandpipers, plovers, curlews, and dowitchers were mostly or completely under glacial ice during Ice Ages. One might ask where these species bred during Ice Age summers. Weather patterns were much different then. Today, much of the west is arid desert, but during Ice Ages the region enjoyed a cooler and much wetter climate. Many large lakes existed in western North America, and they provided beach, reedy marsh, and open water habitats for aquatic birds. A large prehistoric body of water, known as Pleistocene Lake Manix, covered what today is the Mojave Desert, and Pleistocene Fossil Lake inundated the modern day site of a desert in central Oregon. Both of these sites yield abundant remains of the aquatic bird species that formerly spent all or part of their lives there.
Map of western North America during the Ice Age. More precipitation and cooler weather patterns resulted in large lakes in place of present day arid landscapes.
Lesser yellowlegs in Evans, Georgia. This species is a transient here. It spends winters in South America, Florida, and the southeastern Atlantic Coast, but breeds during summer in western Canada.
Range map for a lesser yellowlegs. Many species of sandpipers have similar ranges. Almost their entire breeding range was under glacial ice during Ice Ages. They shifted their breeding ranges to the lakes in western North America that no longer exist and are deserts today.
The entire breeding range of the white fronted goose, the blue goose, and 10 species of ducks was also under glacial ice during the late Pleistocene. The geese and some species of ducks shifted their breeding ranges to these western lakes. However, harlequin, eider, king eider, and the extinct Labrador duck have/had more easterly distributions and likely bred near the Atlantic coast south of the ice sheet. Other migratory species of birds that bred on western lakes during Ice Ages include whooping cranes, northern skuas, and arctic loons.
Many species of aquatic birds that breed in western Canada during summer still breed in western states as well wherever wetlands still exist. Instead of shifting their breeding ground migration north, these species expanded their summer breeding grounds but still also nest within their Pleistocene range. This list of species includes 2 loons, 2 grebes, white pelicans, 2 swans, 10 ducks, sandhill cranes, Virginia rails, Hudsonian godwits, American avocets, 3 phalaropes, and 3 jaegers.
The abundant large lakes of Pleistocene western North America attracted some species of non-migratory birds that no longer occur in the region. Anhingas are fish-eating birds confined to southeastern North America today, but fossil evidence shows they lived in Oregon during the Ice Age. The beautiful scarlet ibis no longer occurs north of Central America but ranged to Oregon then also.
The scarlet ibis no longer occurs north of Central America but did live as far north as Oregon during Ice Ages.
Western lakes evaporated and turned into desert following the end of the Ice Age. A number of species failed to adapt by shifting their ranges to newly available Canadian habitat, and they became extinct. The extinct species include a flamingo, 2 gulls, a jaeger, a cormorant, a grebe, a swan, a goose, and a shelduck.
Breeding colonies of aquatic birds attract predatory species such as bald eagles and great horned owls. Fossil evidence of both these species is found at most of the sites of these former Pleistocene lakes.
The extinct western lakes would have been a birder’s paradise. Paleo-indians saw the wealth of avifauna as a food source. Paleo-indians had no television, radio, and little in the way of entertainment, so perhaps bird-watching was a leisure activity for them after they filled their bellies with spit-roasted duck.
“Remains of the Late Pleistocene Avifauna from Lake Manix, Central Mojave Desert, California”
Bulletin of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County June 1985