GCBO Bird of the Month


by Mike Williams


The Willet, (Tringa semipalmata), was first described by German naturalist Johann Friedrich Gmelin in 1789. It has been classified and reclassified many times but currently is in the genus Tringa due to its close genetic relationship with the Yellowlegs.

Two subspecies exist – Eastern and Western Willet. These might become separate species in the near future due to genetic and morphological differences. Both subspecies are migratory, both breeding in the US and Canada and Winter in the Southern coastal US states, Mexico and the coasts of Central and South America.

Willets tend to be territorial both in breeding and wintering grounds but do from loose associations and groups. Typically nervous and vociferous, they are a common sight fleeing loudly from perceived danger.

Willets make their nests in a simple scrape on a vegetated sandy shore in the male’s territory. He will make several scrapes from which the female will choose one. The nest is often lined with leaves, grass and small stones. 4-5 brownish eggs are laid and incubated for 22-29 days by both the male and female. The young are cared for primarily by the male before fledging. Willets form long term pairs and are monogamous.

Willets have a varied diet eating small crustaceans as well as worms, beetles, and occasionally vegetable matter. Western Willets have a more varied diet and will often take insects etc. Willets have sensitive bill when probing for food and often feed at night.


A chunky wader with a structure similar to Eurasian Shanks it has a heavy thick gray and legs, its plumage being typically mottled brown. In flight it is much more distinctive with black primaries with a distinctive white band. The black underwing coverts can often be seen. The tail is gray with a distinct white rump.

Willets are very vocal with varying loud calls notably “ pill-will-willet”.

Interesting Facts:


  • Willets were made the largest member of the Sandpiper family in the 2006 reclassification
  • Eastern and Western Willets can be told apart Eastern being more heavily barred and darker
  • A group of willets is known as a bind, a contradiction, a fling, a hill or a timestep.

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