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Tringa semipalmata
Willet, photographed at Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge, Hobe Sound, Martin County, in October 2013.

Most sandpipers tend to be small to average size birds. The willet, Tringa semipalmata, is the exception. It is among the larger members of the family.

Its body can be 17 inches long, with a wingspan that can approach 27 inches. It has long legs and a long, relatively stout bill.

Willets are winter visitors to Florida. There are actually two varieties of willets separated by geography — a western bird that spends its summers in the Rocky Mountains and northern plains of Canada and the United States, and an eastern bird that breeds along coastal parts of New England, Nova Scotia and Canada's Maritime. Both varieties spend the winter along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts as far south as Bolivia to the west and Brazil to the east.

In summer, willets are a mottled brown; in the cooler months, when we see them, they taken on a dull gray look. In both winter and summer, however, they do have a striking black and white bar on each wing.

They hunt for food by probing the ground with their bill, using touch to find a meal as much as they do sight. Their menu includes small crabs, clams, worms and snails. While western willet summer well inland, both varieties are pretty much shore birds in winter.

Willets nest on the ground. The male begins the process by scratching out a small depression, hoping it will be suitable for his mate. If not, he continues the process until she's satisfied. The female will finish the job by lining the hole with grass.


Females will lay a clutch of as many as four eggs, with both parents taking turns incubating them. However, according to Cornell Labs, only the male will sit on them at night. The eggs hatch after three weeks to a month, then spend a day or two in the nest before wandering out to explore their world. If a predator threatens the nest or offspring, the parents will feign injury to draw the attention of the would-be attacker and lure him away from the young. Both parents teach their offspring what to eat. The mother, however, will leave the family a couple of weeks early, leaving the father to finish up the rearing.

Greater yellowleg sandpipers are similar in looks to the willet, but they are smaller, have thinner bills and have bright yellow legs that willets don't. James Audubon, of all people, noted how good willets and their offspring tasted. Hunting was once a major threat to this bird's existence. The Migratory Bird Treaty of 1919 made hunting willets and other birds illegal, but loss of habitat remains a threat to their existence. Willets, like all sandpipers, are members of Scolopacidae.

Photographs by David Sedore
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Links for Willet Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology National Audubon Society USGS — Patuxent Wildlife Research Center
Unless otherwise stated, all photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without their express permission.