Bird of the Month: Willet

By Hugh Jennings

PC: Mick Thompson (Willet)

PC: Mick Thompson (Willet)

Scientific Name: Catoptrophorus semipalmatus

Length 15 in

Wingspan 26 in

Weight 8 oz

AOU Band code WILL

The Willet (WILL) is about 15” long with a wingspan of 26” and a weight of 8 oz. (215g).  The genus name Cataptrophorus (cat-op-TROW-for-us) is from Greek katoptron, mirror, and phoros, bearing, in reference to striking white pattern in the wings. 

The species name semipalmatus (sem-ih-pal-MAY-tus) is Latin for half-webbed in reference to the toes. “Willet” is from its cry “will-will-willet”. It is a large, heavy set bird with a striking black & white wing pattern seen in flight. The bold wing pattern may be a warning signal to other birds or may scare away predators during the parent’s dive-bombing defense of its young. Its size is similar to the Whimbrel, but is slightly smaller and the bill is straight, whereas the Whimbrel’s is longer and down-curved. In summer breeding plumage, the Willet is heavily mottled with a white belly and gray legs. In winter, the body is a pale gray-brown above and whitish below. They are found in many habitats, from marshes, wet fields, ponds, lakes, estuaries and lagoons to rocky shores and is often found alone on beaches. The Willet does not breed in Washington state, but large numbers of Willets do nest in the Malheur NWR in Oregon. It is uncommon from July through April in Washington and is most often seen as a coastal winter resident. It walks in shallow water, mud and sand flats and feeds by probing for insects, crustaceans, mollusks, grasses and seeds. The Willet nests on coastal marshes in the East and prairie marshes in the West. The nest is a hollow lined with dry grasses and sedges in open areas up to several hundred yards from water. On the breeding grounds, Willets are very noisy, flashing white wing marks during aerial displays. They will sometimes perch on trees and fence posts to watch for intruders and sound alarm calls. There are usually four eggs, olive-colored with dark marks. Incubation takes 22-29 days. The female leaves its mate and the brood 2-3 weeks after eggs hatch. The male attends the brood for two more weeks. They often wade up to belly deep water and swim. The adults leave the breeding grounds before the young fledge.