(photo gallery below)
Standing on long gray-blue legs, the Willets are a stocky, non-descript shorebirds measuring around 15”. They are a member of the sandpiper family, but are smaller than Gotwits and Curlews. They have medium length bills which are stout, long, and straight. They are gray overall but have a broad white stripe, bordered in black, on their wings. During breeding, you will find some barring, scaling, and spotting on their underparts, backs and wings. Their plumage become whitish on their forehead and belly, and their rumps are mostly white which can be seen when they are in flight. Most of the tail is barred in gray. Eastern birds differ from western birds in plumage and size. The eastern birds are shorter billed, and more heavily barred. Western birds are larger, lankier, and grayer than eastern Willets.
Juveniles are evenly patterned with fringed white-buff spots on their backs and wings. They have fine bars and a golden color to the top of their upper breast. They begin to molt in the fall.
Range and Habitat
Willets can be found foraging on the shores and rocky shores of both coasts and the gulf; they also are found on lake edges, around ponds, and in marshes. Eastern birds breed in coastal marshes while the western birds nest in lakes, ponds, and the shallow ponds of the grasslands of the prairies of Canada and the United States. They winter along both coasts from Oregon south in the west, and from the Carolina’s south in the east, as well as the gulf coast. Willets are strongly migratory.
Willets are noisy and are usually seen in small flocks. They forage separately but stay near each other on the beach; they rarely forage away from the water. They probe in the sand and mud with their bills or snatch up food from the surface of the water. They eat invertebrates, crabs, mollusks, marine worms, plant mater, seeds, and rarely, small fish. You might see them running after a receding wave to probe in the sand for food, then quickly running to shore in front of the next wave coming in. They also wade in deep water up to their bellies looking for food, and sometimes swim but do not dive. When they are startled, they take flight as a group, calling to each other before landing further down on the beach. Their flight has rapid wing beats and then glides. Their call is a shrieking “will-will-et” during breeding. Other calls include a nasal “yah, yah” and a “kip, kip. They may perch in vegetation, and you might also see them sleeping, roosting, and sunbathing in groups.
They quickly nod their heads up and down; this behavior is seen when they are on alert or being aggressive. The white wing flash is considered a threat and a warning to startle predators. Both males and females can be aggressive. Females may erupt into fights, crouching or grasping each other’s legs, necks, wings, or bills. Males defend their territories by display, fighting on the ground, in the air, and by head bobbing. Willets will mob in groups by hovering over and diving at a predator.
Breeding and Nesting
Willets get their breeding plumage in early spring. They are territorial when breeding. The male attracts his female by flying with his wings held high above his body and quivering his wings. The female flies up to meet the male and hovers underneath him. They engage in calling back and forth. Eventually the female will follow the male to the ground where mating takes place. She makes a scrape in the ground for her nest and lines it with grass and weeds. The nest is well hidden in vegetation. The female lays 4-5 eggs with both parents sharing the in incubation of the eggs. The chicks hatch in about 4 weeks. They are covered with down but are able to move around, leave their nest, and find their own food within a day. Their feathers start to come in within a week. The female leaves her young with the male after 2-3 weeks and sets off on migration. The male stays with his young until they are independent, at about 4 weeks.
Photo Gallery Willet
(click to enlarge)