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Text and photos by Peter Vankevich
Willets are the shorebirds one sees along the tide line on the beach. They tower above the scurrying Sanderlings that are also on the water’s edge.
Willets are identified by their long bill and gray legs. Their appearance is rather plain-looking, gray-to-light brown, until they fly. In flight they display a stunning broad white wing-stripe that runs across the primaries and secondaries, bordered in black.
Similar species are Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs which are more slender, have more mottled backs and, as their name implies, have yellow legs. Unlike the Willet, neither yellowlegs species are usually seen on the beach. Another similar shorebird is the rarer Whimbrel which is darker and has a long down-curved bill.
Willets have two disjinct breeding populations. One population breeds inland, primarily in freshwater habitats of western states and provinces and is a subspecies known as the Western Willet.
Along the Atlantic coast, breeding birds are Eastern Willets. Western Willets tend to be larger and paler than Eastern Willets, with less barring in their breeding plumage.
The two subspecies of Willets on Ocracoke are present. In summer it is the Eastern Willet which migrates in the fall. Winter birds are the Western Willets which winter on both coasts. Spring and fall can be a mix.
The name is onomatopoeic, deriving from its loud “pill-will-willet ” call which is loud and incessant during nesting season.
Life expectancy is eight to 10 years.
These birds forage on mudflats or in shallow water including the beach, probing or picking up food by sight.
Their primary food sources are aquatic insects, marine worms, small fishes, small crustaceans and mollusks. They will occasionally eat seeds and grasses.
In the East, Willets nest locally from the southwest corner of Newfoundland and all along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
Willets are ground nesters, usually in well-hidden locations in short grass and often in colonies.
(audio provided courtesy of OhioLINK Digital Resource Commons)
Best Time to see: Year round. Sometimes in winter they may be few in numbers or absent on the island.
Where: Along beach, sound, South Point and South Point Road when water is present.
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Willets nest on Ocracoke, but their numbers are hard to determine due to their secretive marsh locations.
Market-hunting and egg gathering reduced the Atlantic Coast populations so that by the 1890s only a remnant population in southwest Nova Scotia existed north of South Carolina. Reappearance and expansion back to their traditional breeding areas was slow.
Willets are precocial, i.e. hatched in an advanced state, and young birds within a day or so, are up and about in search of their own food. Both parents look after them, including fighting off predators, for a couple of weeks.
They are one of the noisiest of birds on their breeding grounds. When disturbed, the birds will fly around or perch on trees as they loudly scold the intruder. Adults have been observed moving their young from danger by clasping the chicks between their legs and flying to safety.
David Sibley, author of The Sibley Guide to Birds, and others expect that the two subspecies will be split into separate species.
Unlike local shorebirds, they may perch on power lines.