Updated: May 27, 2021
The oldest known Willet in North America was a female and banded in Oregon. She was at least 10 years, 3 months old when she was found in California.
Piercing calls and distinctive wing markings make the otherwise subdued Willet one of our most conspicuous large shorebirds. Whether in mottled brown breeding plumage or gray winter colors, Willets in flight reveal a bold white and black stripe running the length of each wing. These long-legged, straight-billed shorebirds feed along beaches, mudflats, and rocky shores. Willets are common on most of our coastline—learn to recognize them and they’ll make a useful stepping-stone to identifying other shorebirds.
In winter, Willets are easy to spot feeding along the water’s edge. They’re one of the largest common shorebirds, so even though they’re indistinctly marked, you can learn to quickly recognize their overall chunky shape, subdued plumage, and thick, long bill. To be absolutely sure, look for distinctive black-and-white wing markings when they take flight, and listen for the pill-will-willet call that gives them their name.
Willets and other shorebirds were once a popular food. In his famous Birds of America accounts, John James Audubon wrote that Willet eggs were tasty and the young “grow rapidly, become fat and juicy, and by the time they are able to fly, afford excellent food.” By the early 1900s, Willets had almost vanished north of Virginia. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 banned market hunting and marked the start of the Willet’s comeback.
Everyday this one flys in for a nap, then gets up and stretches and grabs a bite to eat in our water saturated yard.
Willets breeding in the interior of the West differ from the Atlantic Coastal form in ecology, shape, and subtly in calls. Western Willets breed in freshwater habitats, and are slightly larger and paler gray. Eastern Willets have stouter bills and more barring on their chest and back. The difference in pitch between the calls of the two subspecies is very difficult for a person to detect, but the birds can hear the difference and respond more strongly to recorded calls of their own type.
Because they find prey using the sensitive tips of their bills, and not just eyesight, Willets can feed both during the day and at night.
Although both parents incubate the eggs, only the male Willet spends the night on the nest.
Like Killdeer, Willets will pretend to be disabled by a broken wing in order to draw attention to themselves and lure predators away from their eggs or chicks.
Western birds nest inland on the ground along pond edges and other seasonal wetlands, or on raised sites near water, often in native grasslands. In the Great Basin, nests are often built at the edge of sagebrush near ponds. In the East, Willets nest in cordgrass, saltgrass, and beachgrass near saltmarshes and on sand dunes, and on bare ground or in short vegetation sheltered by barrier dunes. A pair searches for nest sites together, typically with the male leading the female through the habitat and making trial scrapes for the female to evaluate.
The male Willet initiates nest building by scraping out a small depression with his feet and breast in the grass, on beach sand, or on bare ground. If nesting in grass, the female then pulls in surrounding vegetation to hide the nest site, lining the grass nest cup with finer grasses and pebbles. If built on bare ground, the birds bring grass from a distance to line the scrape. The finished nest is just over 6 inches across and 2 inches deep.
Pictures by Jeff, from my backyard and Peveto Beach area with my Canon SX70HS
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