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A large shorebird species with a grayish-brown and white plumage, a long, straight bill, and a preference for sandy beaches, mudflats, and salt marshes along the coast of North and South America.


Scientific name: Catoptrophorus semipalmatus

Two subspecies of the Willet occupy very different areas, with Western Willets breeding in inland location in the western U.S., and Eastern Willets breeding along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. Western bird usually defend a territory that includes the nest site as well as a foraging area, while eastern birds often have separate nesting and foraging areas.

Female Willets stay with their broods for about two weeks, at which time they leave and the males continue to care for the broods for another two weeks. Once they reach adulthood, Willets have fairly high survival rates, and a record individual was known to live for ten years.

Top image © Sam Crowe.

Second image © Greg Lavaty.

Description of the Willet


The Willet is a large, rather stocky shorebird with a bold black and white wing pattern visible in flight, and a fairly heavy, two-tone bluish and black bill. Breeding birds are variably streaked below and mottled above.
Length: 15 in.  Wingspan: 26 in.

willet looking left aw
Photograph © Alan Wilson.


The sexes are similar.

Seasonal change in appearance

Winter birds are plainer above and below.



Juveniles have buffy fringes to the upperparts feathers.

willet young aw
Photograph © Greg Lavaty.


Willets inhabit ponds, marshes, beaches, and mudflats.


Willets eat insects and small crustaceans.


Willets forage by gleaning from the surface of the water, or probing in mud.


Willets breed in parts of the western U.S. and southwestern Canada, as well as along the Atlantic Coasts of the U.S. and Canada, and the U.S. Gulf Coast. They winter in California, Mexico, and the southeastern coasts of the U.S. The population is not well measured, but may be stable.

More information:

Bent Life History

Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the Willet.

Wing Shape

The shape of a bird’s wing is often an indication of its habits and behavior. Fast flying birds have long, pointed wings. Soaring birds have long, broad wings. Different songbirds will have a slightly different wing shape. Some species look so much alike (Empidonax flycatchers) that scientists sometimes use the length of specific feathers to confirm a species’ identification.

– Female, top of wing – April

– Underside of same wing

Wing images from the University of Puget Sound, Slater Museum of Natural History

Fun Facts

There are two forms of Willets, the Eastern and the Western, which differ somewhat in plumage and which many people believe to be separate species.

The Willet population was much diminished by hunting in the early 1900s, but has recovered.


Vocalizations include a piercing “will-willet”.

Similar Species

  • The black and white wing pattern seen in flight is distinctive. Yellowlegs are smaller and more slender.


The Willet’s nest is a grass-lined depression.

Number: Usually lay 4-5 eggs.
Color: Buffy with darker markings.

Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 22-29 days, and leave the nest shortly after hatching, though associating with the adults for some time.

Bent Life History of the Willet

Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.

Bent Life History for the Willet – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.


A score of years or so ago it seemed as if this large showy wader was destined to disappear from at least the northern portion of its range on the Atlantic coast. It had entirely ceased to breed in many of its former haunts and was nearly extirpated in others. Most of the birds that we shot on migration in New England were immature birds from the West. In Wilson’s (1832) time it bred “in great numbers: along the shores of New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland.” Audubon (1840) wrote that “a few have been known to breed not far from New Bedford in Massachusetts,” probably on some of the islands off the coast. In 1875 H. B. Bailey (1876) fouud it breeding “in large numbers” on Cobb Island, Va.; when we visited this locality in June, 1907, there were not over two or three pairs of willets breeding there; they have increased since then under protection. Maj. G. Ralph Meyer wrote to me in 1922 that about 15 pairs bred on Cobb Island and 5 or 0 pairs on Hog Island that year. It does not now breed in any numbers, so far as I know, north of South Carolina, except in the Nova Scotia colonies.

Although our check list does not recognize that fact, it has been known for many years that willets breed regularly in southern Nova Scotia, though during the early years of this century they came very near being extirpated. Dr. Spencer Trotter (1904) recorded the willet as “one of the most conspicuous inhabitants of the tidal marshes” near Barrington, Shelburne County. But when I visited that locality with him in July, 1907, we found only one pair. Evidently they began to increase again after that under adequate protection. Harrison F. Lewis (1920) found them breeding in Yarmouth County, and Dr. Charles W. Townsend (1920a) saw a flock of 10 on July 18 and as many as 26 on July 25, 1920, near Barrington. Later information from It. W. Tufts (1922 and 1925) shows a decided increase up to 1922, when he estimated that there were 736 xvillets, old and young, between Dighy and Queens Counties; but in 1923 and 1924 there seemed to be no further increase.

Spring: The northward migration of willets, which breed north of the winter range, is along the Atlantic coast, starting in March. The first migrants reach Virginia during the first or second week in April, but do not appear in Massachusetts until May, the main flight passing between the middle and last of that month. The probability of an offshore migration rout&is suggested by the following interesting observation made by Dr. George B. Grinnell (1916) during the last days of May, 1907:

It was in the mitl(lle of the morning of a gray, but not foggy, day, when we were off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. that I noticed a considerable gathering of birds resting on the water in the Immediate path of the ship. As we approached them I thought they looked like shore birds, and as the vessel drew quite close to them those immediately near it lose on wing and flew off to right and left, and again alighted on the water among their fellows. In the way in which they left the path of the vessel they reminded me of similar flights of waterfowl seen in Alaska. When the birds took wing they were at once recognized as willets, and there must have been somewhere near a thousand of them, not all packed together in a dense clump on the water, but more or less scattered out, in groups of forty, fifty, or a hundred, yet all fairly near one another, and suggesting a single flock. They seemed to leave the water reluctantly and gave me the impression that they were wcary.

Courtship: Very little seems to have been recorded about the courtship of the willet, but John T. Nichols has sent ate the following notes:

On the shore of Wakulla County, Fla., in late March willets were evidently about to nest, March 27 they were noticed chasing one another in air, and holding the wings over the back after alighting, the black and white pattern displayed. The following mating behavior was observed March 29 toward sunset. Out on a mud fiat exposed by low water two birds were standing. One stood directly behind the other, waving its parti-colored wings over its back, and ended by mounting the back of the front bird and fluttering there. The performance was accompanied by a tern-like series of kak-kuk–kak-kak-kuk calls.

Nesting: The eastern willet is decidedly a coastwise bird and it is seldom seen far from the coastal marshes, beaches, and islands. Its favorite nesting places are on sandy islands overgrown with grass, tall and thick enough to conceal its nest, or on dry uplands where similar conditions may be found in close proximity to marshes or the shore. In Nova Scotia I was too late to find nests, but Mr. Lewis (1920) writes:

I have occasionally searched for the nests or the young of the willets, but without success until June 5, 1920, ~vhen I found a nest with four eggs of this species, In an open swale in an upland pasture, about a quarter Of a mile from the nearest salt marsh or salt water, at Arcadia, Yarmouth County, Nova Scotia, on the western side of the Chetogue River. The nest was near the Junction of the River Road with Argyle Street, and was about 150 yards from each of those much-traveled highways, which were In full view from the nest site. Several cattle occupied the pasture at the time when the nest was found. The swale in which the nest was placed wag of considerable extent and was of the kind preferred as a breeding place by Wilson’s snipe; in fact, a pair of those birds were evidently nesting there. The willet’s nest was a slight hollow In the damp ground, lined with a few dead rushes. It was surrounded by growing rushes, cinnamon fern, low blackberry bushes, and wild rose bushes, and was well concealed.

Mr. Tufts (1925) says that “they often nest in the open pastures or on the rough boulder-strewn uplands at a considerable distance inland,” but all the nests that he found were “on low land close to the feeding grounds,” near the shore. One nest was located under a tangle of wild rose bushes in a pasture in Yarmouth County.

More typical nesting conditions are to be found on the coastal islands of Virginia and South Carolina. In the Bull’s Bay region of South Carolina we visited two islands, on May 22 and 23, 1915, on which willets were breeding. Most of the nests were on a sand-hill plain, back of the beach, which was overgrown with tufts of fine beach grass and with a few scattering clumps of myrtle hushes. The nests consisted of deep hollows in the sand in or under the tufts of grass, usually well concealed, and were well lined with bits of dry grass, sedges, or small sticks; the hollows measured 6 or 7 inches in diameter. A partially built nest contained only one egg, which was lying on the bare sand and was only partially surrounded by the nesting material; apparently material is added during the laying period and the nest is not completed until incubation begins. One nest was under a little dead, thorny bush, but well concealed, on a small, high spot on an open sandy reef, not far from the nests of oyster catchers and Wilson plover. Another nest, in a situation which was probably flooded at times, was built up 10 inches above the damp ground in a clump of thickly tufted sedges. H. B. Bailey (1876) says that, on Cobb Island, “the marshes are also favorite localities for breeding, and in this case the nests are more elaborate, being built up from the ground, which is wet at high tide.” I think, however, that the willet prefers to nest on dry ground.

Roger Tony Peterson writes to me that, among 11 nests found by him on the South Carolina coast, “five sets of eggs on one particular strip of beach were located on the open sand with no preparation at all made for a nest.” Another set was “in a very heavy, well-made nest of weeds and grass, out on~ the open sand, far- from any grass or bushes.” All were very conspicuous.

C. J. Maynard (1896) found them breeding in Florida, during the first week in May, “among the low scrub, just back of the beach ridge. The nests were placed in the midst of low bushes and were quite difficult to find.” Arthur T. ‘Wayne (1910) “found two nests on the top of a. high sand hill, in wild oats (Zizania naili~iwea)” and E. A. Samuels (1883) says that it “has been known to breed in a rye field 20 miles from the seashore.”

Willets which I have found breeding on the coasts of Louisiana and Texas have proved to be referable to the eastern form. On Dressing Point Island in Matagorda Bay, Tex., we found a few pairs breeding, with heavily incubated eggs, on May 8, 1923. This is a large, flat, grassy island on which we found black-crowned night herons and a few pairs of Ward herons nesting on the ground. The willets’ nests were well concealed under thick tufts of luxuriant grass.

Willets on their breeding grounds are among the noisiest and most demonstrative of birds. No sooner does one land on an island where they are breeding than an outcry is started and one after another the birds arise and fly out to meet the intrudei~, until the whole colony is in a state of great excitement. Regardless of their own safety they circle about at short range, pouring out a steady stream of angry invectives in a great variety of loud, ringing notes. And this performance is kept up as long as the intruder is anywhere near their nests. They often alight on bushes, trees, posts, or even buildings and keep up a constant scolding.

Eggs: The willet regularly lays four eggs; as many a~ six, and even seven, have been found in a nest, but these large numbers are probably the product of two females. The eggs vary in shape from ovate to ovate pyriform and they have only a slight gloss. The ground colors vary from “deep olive buff” to “olive buff,” rarely “yellowish glaucous,” in greenish types, and from “avellaneous ” to “tilleul bluff,” rarely pale “Isabella color,” in the huffy or brownish types; and there are numerous intermediate shades between these extremes. They are generally boldly and irregularly marked with both large and small spots and blotches, but sometimes they are quite evenly covered with small Rpots; rarely they are blotched around the large end only. The markings are mostly in dark browns, ” burnt umber,” “bister,” ” sepia ~’ and ” clove ~ but sometimes they are in lighter, olive browns. The underlying markings are in various shades of “brownish drab” or “drab gray.” The measurements of 56 eggs average 52.5 by 38 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 60.5 by 38, 53.5 by 40, 49 by 37, and 50 by 36 millimeters.

Young: The period of incubation seems to be unknown. Both sexes share in the care of the young, which run soon after hatching. Arthur T. Wayne (1910) says:

The young are hatched by May 29, and the parents sometimes remove them between the thighs (as the woodcock is also known to do) to a place of safety, fully a quarter of a mile away. I observed this trait on May 29, 1899. I found a nest in an oat field, which contained one young bird just hatched and three eggs on the point of hatching. I remained near the place until the eggs were hatched, and the willets were greatly alarmed all the time. Presently I saw one of the old birds remove a young one and fly with It across three creeks and marsh land to an island a quarter of a mile away. This was repeated until all the young were removed.

Plumages: The downy young willet is rather prettily and quite distinctively marked. There is a distinct loral stripe of brownish black, a post ocular stripe and a median frontal stripe of “warm sepia.” The chin and throat are white and the rest of the head is pale buff, mixed with grayish white, heavily mottled on the crown with “warm sepia.” The down of the hind neck and upper back is basally sepia with light buff tips. The rest of the upper parts are variegated with pale buff, grayish white and “warm sepia”; but in the center of the back is a well marked pattern of four broad stripes of “warm sepia” and three of light buff, converging on the rump and between the wings. The under parts are buffy white.

The young bird begins to acquire its juvenal plumage before it is half grown, beginning with the scapulars, back and wings; then comes the plumage of the breast and crown, and lastly the neck, rump and tail. In the full juvenal plumage, in July, the feathers of the crown, back, scapulars and wing coverts are “sepia “; those of the crown are tipped, those of the back and scapulars are broadly edged or notched and those of the wing coverts are still more broadly edged with “pale pinkish buff”; the greater coverts are irregularly barred, variegated or sprinkled with sepia; the rest of the wing is as in the adult; the rump is “hair brown,” narrowly tipped with buffy white; the upper tail coverts arc white, indistinctly barred with dusky near the tips; the central tail feathers are barred with “sepia~~ and “drab,” tinged with “pinkish ~ these markings decreasing laterally; the chin, upper throat and belly are white; the lower throat, chest, and flanks are suffused with “pale pinkish buff,” streaked on the throat and chest and barred on the flanks with “sepia.” These colors soon fade until the edgings become nearly white.

A partial molt takes place mainly in September, involving the body plumage, the tail an4 some of the wing coverts; this produces the first winter plumage, which can be distinguished from the adult only by the retained juvenal wing coverts. This plumage is worn through the winter and I think, in most cases, through the first spring. At the next complete molt, the first postnuptial, the adult winter plumage is acquired. Adults have a nearly complete prenuptial molt in March, April, and May, involving everything but the flight feathers of the wing~, which are apparently molted later in the fall or early in the winter. I have not actually seen these feathers molting. The lighter portions of the spring plumage wear away during the breeding season, giving the birds a very black appearance above. The complete postnuptial molt begins with the body plumage in August, or even July, and by September the plain “smoke gray” winter plumage is assumed.

Food: The favorite feeding grounds of the eastern willet are on the broad mud flats or sand flats in the bayous, bays, and estuaries on the coast; it also feeds along the muddy banks of creeks and ditches, or about the pond holes and splashes on the salt marshes. If disturbed at its feeding it rises with a loud outcry, alarming all the birds within hearing. W. J. Erichsen (1921) has noted that, although they feed at all hours of the day, the nesting birds are seldom found on their nests during the early morning hours, when there seems to be a concerted movement from the breeding grounds to their feeding places. I am inclined to think, however, that they are governed more by the tides than by the hours, as most of their feeding grounds are covered at high tide. Their food consists of aquatic insects, marine worms, small crabs, fiddlers, small mollusks, fish fry, and small fish. Some vegetable matter is eaten, such as grasses, tender roots, seeds, and even cultivated rice.

Behavior: The flight of the willet is said to be swift, but it has always seemed to me to be matber slow and heavy, when compared with the flight of other shore birds, though perhaps it results in better speed than it appears to do. The willet is a heavy-bodied nd protrac~ed~ it seem bird aiid its flight is strono direct ‘m ï , s to fly more like a duck than the other shore birds. Occasionally it sets its wings and scales downward; and on its breeding grounds I have seen it hover on quivering wings like a poised falcon. I have not found the willet particularly shy, as compared with other large waders, though it has the reputation of being very wary. When in large flocks in open situations, it is useless to attempt to approach it; but I have often walked up to within gunshot range of single birds and have frequently had sma.lL flocks fly within range while I was standing in plain sight. On its breeding grounds it is utterly fearless and bold.

Willets often perch on bushes, trees, fences, posts, rocks, or buildings, where they can watch and scold at the intruder. Mr. Maynard (1896) has seen them “perching on the limbs of pine trees, 40 or 50 feet from the ground, and sometimes, a dozen birds would sit side by side on a single branch, presenting a novel appearance.” Being partially webfootcd, they can swim fairly well and probably alight on the water to rest when migrating at sea. On the ground they are rather sluggish, standing still much of the time, with heads drawn down. They indulge in the bobbing or nodding motions less frequently and more moderately than the yellowlegs do. Francis H. Allen has noted that “in bobbing, the head is drawn back and the tail Lowered at the same time, the whole body turning as on a pivot, then the head is brought forward and the tail raised to its natural level.”

Voice: On its breeding grounds the willet is a very noisy bird, pouring out a great variety of notes. Its usual note is a loud, vehement wek, wek, ‘we/c or kerwek, kerwek, kermeek, varied to pitt/c, pitt/c, piuk. Occasionally the whistling note, F/ill, will, will or pill-owill-o-will,et, is heard, suggesting the note of the yellowlegs in quality, accent, and manner of delivery. Less frequently another note is heard, which sounds like beat it, beat it. John T. Nichols adds in his notes:

At this season one hears several variations of the lciyuk flight note, one of these, ki: pi.-yuk suggesting the loudest, most ringing call of the greater yellowlegs. A loud, high-pitched kree-uk, which is Infrequent, suggests a note of the lesser yellowlegs. Similarly kuk-kuk-kuk-kuic-kuk in tern-like series from two mating hirds Is probably homologous with the alighting and flushing notes of the yellowlegs. The, ordinary loud flight note of the transient willet is a far-reaching, gull-like kiyuk, repeated at intervals. A less frequent call resembles the whcu mcheu wI~eu of the greater yellowlegs, but Is much lower pitched, not loud. It is likely to be heard from a bird lingering at a given locality.

Enemies: Man has been the chief enemy of the willet and the main cause of the restriction of its breeding areas. When it bred abundantly in Nova Scotia and Virginia its eggs were collected in large numbers as a legitimate article of food. And the birds were shot all through the breeding season. Being a large, fat bird, it helped to fill the game bag rapidly and so was a favorite with sportsmen or market gunners. It does not come readily to decoys, but it can easily be attracted by a skillful imitation of its notes, and flocks often fly by within range of the gunner’s blind. Mr. Nichols tells me that it will decoy well to the whistled imitation of the blackbellied plover’s note. As it is n~ longer on the game-bird list, it will probably be given a chance to increase.

Some colonies have been washed out by high tides and their natural enemies, predatory animals and birds, have done considerable damage. P. B. Philipp (1910), who visited Raccoon Key, S. C., says:

The birds had been badly persecuted by fish crows and minks; broken and sucked eggs were found everywhere, and two nests were found in which the skeleton of the bird was lying on sucked eggs, the work of minks.

Field marks: The willet, while standing on the ground, is a nondescript looking bird, almost devoid of characteristic markings, especially in the immature and winter plumages. It is about the size of the greater yellowlegs, but more heavily built, with shorter and heavier, bluish-gray legs, shorter neck, and decidedly heavier bill. Its drab colors match well into a background of sand or mud. But when it lifts its black and white wings or when flying, no bird is more easily recognized, for its color pattern is unique and conspicuous; the black wings, with their broad white band extending across the base of the tail, advertise the willet as far as they can be seen. Its notes, described above, are also quite characteristic.

Fall: I imaaine that the willets, which breed in Nova Scotia, migrate at sea to the West Indies, mainly in August. I have never seen an adult willet on the New England coast in the fall, and practically all that I have shot are referable to the western form, but it is not easy to recognize the two forms in immature plumage. Willets of some form, in immature plumage, are quite common at times in southern New England and on Long Island from the middle of July to the middle of September. The main flight comes in August. I suspect that these are practially all young western willets.

Winter: The eastern willet spends the winter on the south Atlantic and Gulf coasts of North America, in the Bahamas and West Indies, and on the more northern coasts of South America. It is therefore resident or present the year round in much of its breeding range. It is rather rare as far north as South Carolina, but abundant in Florida and on the Gulf coasts, where the resident birds are reinforced by eastern and western willets from the North. In Florida they are occasionally seen about the ponds on the prairies or in the pine woods, but their favorite resorts are the broad mud flats in the estuaries and bayous or in the coastal marshes. In such places we often saw them in large flocks by themselves, where they were very shy and utterly unapproachable. Toward the end of March their numbers began to decrease, as the birds left for their breeding grounds.

Range: The Atlantic and Gulf coasts of North America to northern South America; accidental in Kansas, Bermuda, and Europe.

Breeding range: The breeding range of the willet extends north to Texas (Corpus Christi, Houston, and Galveston); Louisiana (Calcasieu, New Orleans, and Breton Island); Alabama (Grand Batture Island and Bayou Labatre); and Nova Scotia (Dighy, Halifax, and Sable Island). East to Nova Scotia (Sable Island and Barrington); Massachusetts (formerly New Bedford and Nantucket); Connecticut (Madison and West Haven) ; New Jersey (Barnegat Inlet, Bridgeton, Beasleys Point, Sea Isle City, and Cape May); Maryland (Berlin); Virginia (Chincoteague, Hog Island, Cobb Island, and Norfolk); North Carolina (Atlantic and Beaufort) ; South Carolina (Waverly Mills, Sullivans Island, and Frogmore); Georgia (Savannah, Darien, and St. Simons Island); eastern Florida (Fernandina, Anastasia Island, New Smyrna, Turtle Mount, Mosquito Lagoon, Cape Canaveral, and Lake Worth); and the Bahama Islands (Great Bahama, Abaco, and Inagua.) South to the Bahama Islands (Inagua and Andros); the West Indies (Grand Cayman); western Florida (Indian Key and St. Marks); and Texas (Brownsville). West to Texas (Brownsville and Corpus Christi).

The breedings range above outlined has become greatly restricted, and while it is still reported as breeding in Nova Scotia, it is of rare occurrence at this season on the coasts of the Northern and Middle Atlantic States. Willets have been reported as nesting on Barbuda, West Indies, but the record is probably based upon non-breeding individuals which also have been noted in Cuba (Guantanamo).

Winter range: The winter range extends north to Texas (Brownsville) ; Louisiana (State Game Preserve and Breton Island) ; Alabama (Coffee Island); and probably rarely Virginia (Cobb Island). East to rarely Virginia (Cobb Island); rarely North Carolina (Fort Macon); South Carolina (Waverly Mills and Frogmore); Georgia (Savannah and Darien); Florida (Fernandina, Mosquito Inlet, Indian River, Sebastian, and Royal Palm Hammock); the Bahama Islands (Grassy Creek and Caicos); Cuba; probably Haiti; Porto Rico (Boqueron and Anegada Island); the Lesser Antilles (Antigua, Barbados, Grenada, and Trinidad); British Guiana; and Brazil (Catejuba Island). South to Brazil (Catejuba Island and Guapore River). West to Brazil (Guapore River); northeastern Colombia (Carthagena); probably Panama (Rio Juan Diaz); Yucatan (Merida and Cozumel Island); Tamaulipas (Matamoros); and Texas (Brownsville).

Spring migration: Early dates of spring arrival are: New Jersey, Cape May, March 22, Long Beach, April 0, and CaIdwell, April 7; Rhode Island, Rock Island, April 27; Massachusetts, Nantucket, May 2, Dennis, May 5, and Falmouth, May 11; and Nova Scotia, Yarmouth, April 22, and Wolfville, April 29.

Late dates of spring departure are: Mexico, Tampico, April 11; and Cuba, Trinidad, April 14, Siguanea, May 2, and Guantanamo, May 8.

Fall migration: Information is lacking of the early arrival of the willet on the southern part of its winter range, but among late dates of fall departure are: Maine, Sagadahoc County, October 25; Massachusetts, Plymouth, October 4; Connecticut, Meriden, October 15; New Jersey, Salem County, October 8, and Caldwel], October 17; and Maryland, near Baltimore, about November 1.

Casual records: The willet has been taken once in Kansas (near Hamilton, September 8, 1912); and one was obtained in Bermuda on July 3, 1848. It also has been reported on a few occasions from Europe, in all cases without complete data: France (Abbeville, also two in the Paris market); Dalmatia; and Sweden.

Egg dates: Nova Scotia: 4 records, June 5 to 19. Virginia: 26 records, May 19 to June 16; 13 records, May 27 to June 8. South Carolina and Georgia: 53 records, March 10 to July 4; 27 records, May 9 to 22. Texas: 28 records, April 3 to June 10; 14 records, April 23 to May 24.


When William Brewster (1887) described and named the western willet he characterized it as:

Differing from & semi~alrnata in being larger, with a longer, slenderer bill; the dark markings above fewer, finer, and fainter, on a much paler (grayishdrab gronnd) ; those beneath duller, more confused or broken, and bordered by pinkish salmon, which often spreads over or suffuses the entire underparts, excepting the abdomen. Middle tail feathers either quite immiculate or very faintly barred.

It is a bird of the western interior; its main breeding grounds are in the Great Plains regions of the Northern States, west of the Mississippi River, and the central Provinces of Canada. Nearly all recent writers have recorded it as breeding on the coasts of Louisiana and Texas, an oft-repeated error. All the breeding birds that I have shot on the coasts of these two States, in May and June, were clearly referable to the eastern form. And I have been unable to find any specimens of inommata in collections that could be classed as breeding birds from these States. If the western willet breeds in Texas at all it must be on the plains or prairies of the interior. But it seems hardly likely that it would have a breeding range so widely separated from the northern range as outlined below. The eastern willet is strictly a coastwise bird and breeds, or did formerly, all along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. On the other hand, the western willet is just as strictly a bird of the inland prairies and plains during the breeding season.

Spring: The main migration route seems to be northward through the Mississippi Valley, chiefly in April; most of the birds are on their breeding grounds by the first of May or earlier and are laying eggs before the end of that month. Birds which winter in South Carolina and Florida probably join this route by an overland flight. There is a northward migration through the interior valleys of California to breeding grounds west of the Rocky Mountains, and probably some birds cross these mountains to the interior plains.

Nesting: We found western willets very common about the lakes in the prairie regions of North Dakota and Saskatehewan; but owing to their habit of flying a long distance to meet the intruder and making a great fuss everywhere but near their nests, we succeeded in finding only one nest. This was on the higher portion of the open prairie, a long way from any water, near Big Stick Lake, Saskatchewan. The nest was a hollow in the ground, measuring 7 by 6 inches in diameter and 3 inches deep, lined with grasses and dry weeds. It was in plain sight in short grass; a few scattered dead weeds were standing around it, but no long grass. It contained three fresh eggs on June 14, 1906. Ernest T. Seton (Thompson, 1890) found a nest in Manitoba “which was placed in a slight hollow, shaded on one side by the skull of a buffalo and on the other by a tuft of grass,” on an alkali plain.

The western willet breeds commonly in Boxelder County, Utah. Three sets of eggs in my collection, taken there on May 7, 13, and 16, 1916, by the Treganzas, came from nests described as slight depressions in short marsh grass; one was near an alkali flat, one near a water runway, and one on a partially grass-grown dike.

This bird is a rare, or very local, breeder in California. J. Van Denburgh (1919) reports five nests found on “a partially flooded mountain meadow” in Lassen County on June 1 and 6, 1918. “The nests were made of pieces of weeds rather carelessly built up on the mud. Some were found where the water was a few inches deep and some where the mud was drying.~~

Eggs: The eggs of the western willet are indistinguishable fronk those of the eastern bird. r~ here is a slight average difference in length, but the measurements widely overlap. The measurements of 56 eggs average 54.1 by 37.6 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 58.1 by 39.4, 50.5 by 39.7, and 54.9 by 35 millimeters.

Plumages: The sequence of plumages and molts is the same for both races, but juvenal western birds are somewhat paler than eastern birds, and they have less barring on the tail feathers or none at all.

Fall: From its breeding grounds in the interior the western willet migrates in three main directions to the seacoasts, almost due east to the Atlantic coast of New York and New England, southeast and south to the south Atlantic and Gulf coasts and southwest to the California coast. Probably the birds which breed east of the Rocky Mountains take the easterly and southerly routes and those which breed west of these mountains migrate to California. Most of the willets which we get in Massachusetts in August are immature western willets; I have never seen an adult. These young birds apparently come from the Great Lakes region, where they have been recorded in Illinois and Ohio and as far north as Toronto, Ontario. John T. Nichols says in his notes:

Along the bays and marshes of the south shore of Long Island the willet Is a regular late-summer migrant in small numbers varying from year to year. Southbound shore birds of other species are now following this cbast to the westward, but a large majority of the willet are moving in the opposite direction; that is, from west to east. Its maximum flight seems to come In the beginning of August, and a peak of abundance for the species was reached In 1923. At Mastic on August 4, 1923, 14 willet Were counted passing west to east in 3 flocks during 21,4 hours’ observation.

I have examined a number of specimens of these Long Island fall-migration willet, which have all been in the grey unmarked plumage of birds of the year (which I would not undertake to distinguish from adult fresh winter plumage), and remarkably uniform in size. Their bills varied scarcely at all In dimensions (slightly over 2% inches), being decidedly too long for the short-billed Virginia breeding bird, but much too short for the long-billed bird from the Dakotas (unless its young of the year are uniformly short-billed).

Winter: Western willets mingle in winter with their eastern relatives on the South Atlantic and Gulf coast from Florida to Texas; they are especially abundant in Texas. They also winter abundantly from the coast of California southward. Bradford Torrey (1913) saw them, mixed with marbled godwits, near San Diego, in such numbers that he: mistook them at first for a border of some kind of herbiage. Thousands there must have been; and when they rose at my approach they made something like a cloud; gray birds and brown birds so contrasted in color as to be discriniinated beyond risk of error, even when too far away for the staring white wing patches of the willets to he longer (liscernible.

Mrs. Florence M. Bailey (1910) has well described their habits, as beach birds at this season, as follows:

In the flocks of brown godwits the few gray willets looked small. They fed in the same way as the godwits, though their bills were shorter and they could not probe so deep, hut they ran their bills ahead of them through the wet sand, probed as far as they could reach, and then trotted back before the oncoming waves. A thoughtless one sat down just at the edge of the water line one day, its back toning In with the sand, Its long legs stretched out before it; but soon after it was comfortably settled up came the foam and it had to bend forward on its tarsus, raise itself, and flee up the beach. I often saw one resting, standing on one leg, or sitting at ease with white rump showing. When stretching the black of the wings showed effectively as it does both when the birds fly up and when they alight with wings raised over the back. wilt et, willet, they often called as they went.

Range: United States and southern Canada (casually Alaska), south to northern South America.

Breeding range: North to Oregon (Fort Klamath and Camp Harney); Montana (Bozeman); Alberta (probably Edmonton and Buffalo Lake); Saskatchewan (probably Quill Lake and Indian Head); Manitoba (Moose Mountain and Turtle Mountains); North Dakota (Cando and Larimore) ; Minnesota (Herman and Madison) and probably formerly Illinois (Belvidere and Glen Ellyn). East to probably formerly Illinois (Glen Ellyn). South to probably formerly Illinois (Glen Ellyn) ; Iowa (probably Newton and formerly Boone); Nebraska (Long Pine, Kennedy, Garden County, and Morrill County); Wyoming (probably Big Piney); Utah (Parleys Park and Salt Lake) ; and northern California (Beckwith). West to northern California (Beckwith, Grasshopper Valley, Alturas, and Goose Lake); and Oregon (probably Tule Lake and Fort Klamath). Non-breeding birds have been observed in summer a~ far south as Lower California (Mazatlan and San Quintin Bay) ; Colorado (Barr) ; Florida (Pensacola) ; and Alabama (Petit Bois Island).

Winter range: North to California (Humboldt Bay); Texas (Brownsville, Corpus Christi, Rockport, and Refugio County) ; probably Louisiana; and Florida (Amelia Island). East to Florida (Amelia Island, Dummitts, and the Florida Keys) ; Tamaulipas (Tampico); probably Honduras (San Pedro); Ecuador (Bay of Santa Elena); and Peru (Tumbez). South to Peru (Tumbez); and the Galapagos Islands (Albemarle). West to the Galapagos Islands (Albemarle and Abingdon); Costa Rica (Lepanto); Guerrero (Aca pulco); Nyarit (San Bias); Lower California (San Quintin); and California (San Diego, La Jolla, Morro Bay, San Francisco, Bodega Bay, and Humboldt Bay).

Spring Migration: Early dates of arrival are: Arkansas, Osceola, March 29; Missouri, Stotesbury, April 8, and St. Louis, April 27; Illinois, Quincy, April 5, and Big Lake, April 29; Iowa, Cedar Rapids, April 2, Emmetsburg, April 21, and Keokuk, April 30; Wisconsin, Heron Lake, April 10, and Waseca, April 10; Minnesota, Lanesboro, April 26; Kansas, Manhattan, April 28, and McPherson, April 30; Nebraska, Niobrara, April 26, Neligh, May 1, and Valentine, May 5; South Dakota, Pitrodie, April 25, and Forestburg, April 28; North Dakota, Charlson, May 1, Jamestown, May 1, and Harrisburg, May 2; Manitoba, Treesbank, April 30; Saskatchewan, Indian Head, April 26, Wiseton, May 2, and Eastend, May 7; Colorado, Durango, April 15, Barr, April 20, and Baca County, April 28; Utah, Great Salt Lake, April 12; Wyoming, Cokeville, April 26, and Cheyenne, April 30; Montana, Lewiston, May 2, and Billings, May 4; Oregon, Narrows, April 15; and Alberta, Flagstaff, April 26, Vagreville, April 28, and Alliance, April 29.

Late dates of spring departure are: Florida, Indian Rocks, May 6; Alabama, Coden, May 17; Tamaulipas, Tampico, April 11; Texas, Brownsville, April 23, and Texas City, May 13; Lower California, Tres Marias Islands, April 8, and Cerros Island, April 18; and Nyarit, San Bias, April 24, and Los Penas Island, May 5.

Fall Migration: Early dates of arrival in the fall are: Lower California, San Quintin, August 8; Arizona, San Bernardino Ranch, August 13; New Mexico, Carlsbad, August 16, and Capitan Mountains, August 28; Oklahoma, Yarnaby, August 9; Texas, Padre Island, August 20; and Tehuantepec, San Mateo, August 6. Western willets also are of fairly regular occurrence in fall migration on the Atlantic coast, specimens having been collected in Massachusetts, Newburyport, August 5, and Boston, August 8; Connecticut, Stony Creek, August 15, and West Haven, August 26; Rhode Island, Quonochontaug, August 5; and New York, Amityville, August 14, and Hempstead Bay, August 15.

Late dates of fall departure are: Oregon, Yaquina Bay, October 1; Montana, Terry, September 8; Idaho, Rupert, October 20; Nevada, Carson River, October 13; Arizona, San Bernardino Ranch, September 2; Wyoming, Yellowstone Park, September 13; New Mexico, Jicarilla Apache Reservation, September 13; Saskatchewan, Redberry, September 2; North Dakota, Dawson, September 17, and Harrisburg, October 3; Nebraska, Long Pine, September 10, and Lincoln, September 29; Iowa, Cerro Gordo County, September 2, and Keokuk, October 27; Illinois, Chicago, September 30; and Connecticut, West Haven, September 3, and once in October.

Casual records: In spite of its regular occurrence on the Atlantic coast, the western willet has been detected only on a few occasions in the interior States east of the Mississippi River. There appear to be several records for Ohio from April 30 (Oberlin) to November 2 (Bay Point); one for Indiana, Millers, August 14, 1897; and one for Michigan, Ann Arbor, May, 1889. One was taken July 20, 1898 at Toronto, Ontario, and four other specimens without data are presumed to be from the same locality (Fleming). Other casual occurrences are: Washington, Seattle, July 23, 1922, and Tacoma, September 6, 1913; British Columbia, Clover Point, August 18, 1898; probably Yukon, Lake Marsh, July 2, 1899; and Alaska, Lynn Canal (Hartlaub)

Egg dates: Utah: 32 records, April 5 to May 21; 16 records, May 4 to 14. Saskatchewan and North Dakota: 19 records, May 8 to June 22; 10 records, May 23 to June 7. Washington to California: 9 records, May 8 to June 16.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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