Willet: A large, inland Sandpiper

By Dave Hanks

A piercing call draws my attention to a brownish, speckled bird in the marsh. It cooperates and flies to an old post where it is clearly visible. It is a sandpiper that is plump, with long legs and a long, strong-looking bill. But it is when it flies, that I get the full affect of this species demeanor. Long, white wing stripes appear that were not visible while he was perched actually it could be a female, as both sexes are similar. While airborne, its loud call reverberates over the marsh.

The Willet is 13 inches long with a thick, straight, blackish bill. It is a summer resident of our interior West where it favors fresh or saline marshes and lakeshores. It lays 4 olive-buff eggs in a depression on the ground which is lined with weeds, or in a clump of grass. The young hatch after 22 to 29 days of incubation and are precocial. This species will feed in groups, along water edges, on aquatic invertebrates and small fish. If one bird is startled, the entire group will take to the air.

Similar colored birds, such as the two species of Yellowlegs, are smaller and have yellow legs. Godwits and curlews are larger. Godwits have a much longer, slightly upturned bill; and curlew bills are quite long and sweep downward.

We see Willets regularly whenever we are by a marsh. The Camas Prairie marsh, which is south of Hill City, Idaho, is a favorite destination for us in springtime. The beautiful Blue Camas is in bloom and the marsh is alive with birds and bird calls. This marsh is interspersed with roads and is very accessible in your vehicle.

(Foraging in the marsh sedges)