The largest breeding sandpiper prepares to nest

By Susan Campbell

It is spring, and a loud “pill-will-willet” rings out along the beaches and, even more emphatically, from the sounds along the Carolina coast. Our largest breeding sandpiper, the willet, is once again advertising its territory. Pairs can be seen circling the marshes and beaches, getting ready to nest.

The willet is a tan wader in the winter months that develops handsome barring early in the year. However, the bold black and white wing patches, visible in flight, remain the same. These birds have a long black bill as well as long, dark legs. But in the grassy areas where they nest, their camouflage is superb, and they are only likely to get noticed if they begin to call or are flushed upon approach. Willets in our area will breed in marshy spots or on dredge spoil islands in shallow nests among the low vegetation.

These birds prey on a variety of creatures along the shoreline. Most of their food is taken from the surface of the water, sand or rocks. Willets consume crabs, snails and a variety of insects. They have very sensitive bill tips and so readily probe for shrimp, worms and other invertebrates. As a result, they can not only feed during the day but also at night. Individuals may also be seen chasing or swimming after small fish in the shallows.

As breeding season approaches, willets pair up and begin to search for a suitable nest site. The male will lead the female on their quest and will make small, experimental scrapes for his mate to inspect. When the right spot is located, the pair will dig a mere few inches into the dirt or sand and line the cup with nearby fine grasses. It will take almost a month for the four speckled eggs to hatch. After only a day or two, the downy young will begin following their parents and will already be pecking at the vegetation and sand as potential food items. Females may, like some other shorebird species, feign a broken wing in order to lure would-be predators from their eggs or young.

Willets, by virtue of their size, were once heavily hunted. Their meat was prized, as were their relatively large eggs. Although not a species of concern locally, they are not as common as they once were. Loss of breeding habitat to development as well as higher rates of predation by nutria, opossums and raccoons have taken their toll. Also collisions with low-level power lines are problematic for these birds, particularly juveniles as they are learning to fly.

Willets are one of the few shorebirds that breed in North Carolina. They are not a common sight but are certainly conspicuous where they are found. Pairs may stay together for a number of years and return to the same area each spring to raise a new brood. So should you locate a willet in the coming weeks, consider yourself lucky and keep an eye — and an ear — out for a family group in the area by early summer.

Susan would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photos at susan@ncaves.com.

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