By Larry Czajkoski
Anyone coming upon a willet standing on a winter beach may be excused for thinking it a dull bird (as evidence by this bird I photographed on the beaches of Florida this past winter.) It seems to be without distinguishing characteristics, a brown and while wallflower among more colorful birds. But then it opens its wings, and you see that there is more to this bird than meets the eye.
A large sandpiper (14 to 16 inches long) and long-legged, the willet is a muted gray-brown above and white below, with a long dark bill and bluish legs. While the willet is a bit more mottled in breeding season, this bird’s glory lies in its boldly striped, black-white-black wings that, when opened, identify this species at a glance. Willets seem to sense this too, flexing their wings often and stretching them to their fullest upon landing, as if to say, “Look at me!” These common shorebirds also call attention to themselves with cries of pill-will-willet from which they get their common name.
In North Carolina, the willet is a common summer resident on the coast. In fact, this bird can be found all along the east coast of North America but winters from South Carolina to South America. During migrations, willets may be found widely and in a variety of habitats, from marshes, wet meadows, and mudflats to grassy dunes and beach margins.
Willets use their bills to probe for food in soft mud or sand, or to pick small items directly from the ground. What’s on the menu depends on location and season. In saltwater habitats, willets eat fiddler crabs, mollusks, and small fish. In freshwater situations, aquatic insects are a staple.
Visit beaches and tidal creeks, marshes and shallow wetlands near the Carolina coast in summer and fall, and scan the flocks of small shorebirds for this species, which will appear larger, plainer, and chunkier than most others. Watch for those telltale black and white wings, a sure giveaway if you see them.