Article for January - February 2007
For Wildlife Watchers: Willet
by Rob Simbeck
photography by Jeff Mollenhauer
SOMETIMES, THE MOMENT IS everything. A gorgeous sunset after a long, drizzly day or the sudden appearance of fireflies on a humid evening can bring magic spilling into our lives. Much of the joy inherent in being a wildlife watcher lies in learning to appreciate those little flashes of unexpected beauty.
The right moment can work wonders for our appreciation of many of the animals around us as well. A mockingbird sitting silently on a perch is just a bird; let it erupt in song and the world is changed. The chrysalis escapes our attention until it turns into a butterfly. Dolphins easing by, breaking the surface to breathe, can provide an absolutely otherworldly experience.
Another striking example is the willet. Walking along the shore, poking around in the mud or shallow water for invertebrates, it is a fairly nondescript grey bird, although its size makes it stand out from smaller, more common shorebirds. Plump and a little more than a foot long, with a wingspan of 24 to 30 inches, the willet bears a passing resemblance to the yellowlegs, but with a white tail, long greyish-blue legs and a heavy bill. Let it take to the sky, though, and the flashing of its bold black-and-white wings and the piercing sound of its sharp call make it a truly striking creature.
Winter residents of coastal marshes, mud flats and beaches along the Eastern Seaboard southward to South America, willets breed from April to September on inland lakes and marshes from the Canadian plains to the Gulf of Mexico, and along the Atlantic Coast, including South Carolina. They—and a western variant along the Pacific Coast—take their name from the musical pill-will-willet call they make during the breeding season.
Description: 14 to 18 inches long, 24- to 30-inch wingspan. Grey above, white below; black-and-white under wings.
Habitat and Range: Canada to Gulf of Mexico. Summers along lakes and marshes. Winters Atlantic Coast to South America.
Reproduction: Breed April to June in South Carolina. 4 eggs, incubated by both parents
Viewing Tips: Marshy areas, mud flats, lakes and ponds, meadows. Coastal areas, particularly less-developed places like the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge.
Willets are one of only four shorebird species that nest on the front beaches in South Carolina. They build shallow nests in dense grass near water in, or just behind, the barrier dunes. Strongly territorial, they will defend nests and young vigorously, meeting intruders with a defensive cacophony, sometimes perching on limbs or fences to scold them and sometimes flying up to mob them.
"They stay very tightly with their nests," says Felicia Sanders, a wildlife biologist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. "When you walk up on them in short grass they will flush and fly up at the last second, sometimes just a foot or so from your face. They’ll scare you to death, the way a covey of quail will. While they’re nesting, they're pretty defensive of their nesting territory."
The female lays four spotted, olive-brown eggs, which are incubated by both parents for twenty-two days, with the male doing a low bow before taking his turn. "Females usually incubate during the day," says Sanders, "and only males incubate at night."
The down-covered hatchlings can wander from the nest just a day or so after hatching, under the watchful eyes of both adults. The mother leaves after two or three weeks, with the father remaining another week or two until the young are independent.
The willet's beautiful eggs and bold feathers led hunters and collectors to decimate their numbers a century ago, particularly in the Northeast. They have recovered to some extent, but development along the coast has taken more and more of their habitat.
Willets forage by probing the mud, sand and shallows for invertebrates, including aquatic insects. Along the coast, they add mollusks, crabs and small fish to their diet. They remain in contact while feeding, and will generally all flush together, calling to each other as they move farther along a beach. They have partially webbed feet—something reflected in the Latin term semipalmatus that is part of their Linnean name—and are good swimmers, although they generally walk or wade as they feed.
While there has never been a survey of their numbers in South Carolina, Sanders describes them as "one of the most commonly seen shorebirds." They are quite common all along the South Carolina coast and are particularly plentiful in the least-disturbed places, with the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge being one of their favorite South Carolina habitats. Flocks from Northern nesting sites winter in the state, adding to their movement and numbers.
The DNR is in the process of protecting some of the nesting sites for willets, among many other seabirds and shorebirds, according to Laurel Barnhill, DNR bird conservation coordinator.
"During the nesting season, we're closing three islands outside of Charleston Harbor—Deveaux Bank, Crab Bank and Bird Key," she says. "We added the regulations last spring to try to keep people from going out there and disturbing nesting birds."
It is an important protective measure. As one of the species sensitive to ever-increasing development, and as a creature capable of providing a bit of the magic that is part and parcel of a great outdoor experience, the willet is certainly worth treasuring.
Rob Simbeck is an award-winning free-lance writer living in Nashville, Tennessee.