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Help develop a Bird ID tool!

Willet

Tringa semipalmata ORDER: CHARADRIIFORMES FAMILY: SCOLOPACIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Piercing calls and distinctive wing markings make the otherwise subdued Willet one of our most conspicuous large shorebirds. Whether in mottled brown breeding plumage or gray winter colors, Willets in flight reveal a bold white and black stripe running the length of each wing. These long-legged, straight-billed shorebirds feed along beaches, mudflats, and rocky shores. Willets are common on most of our coastline—learn to recognize them and they’ll make a useful stepping-stone to identifying other shorebirds.

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Keys to identification Help

Shorebirds
Shorebirds
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Willets are large, stocky shorebirds with long legs and thick, straight bills considerably longer than the head. Their wings are broader and rounder than those of many shorebirds and the tail is short and squared off at the base.

  • Color Pattern

    Willets are gray or brown birds that, when flying, display a striking white and black stripe along each wing. In summer, Willets are mottled gray, brown, and black; in winter they are a more consistent plain gray. The legs are bluish gray.

  • Behavior

    Willets are often seen alone. They walk deliberately, pausing to probe for crabs, worms and other prey in sand and mudflats, or to pick at insects and mollusks. When startled, they react with a piercing call, often opening their wings and running rather than taking flight.

  • Habitat

    In winter, Willets feed on beaches and rocky coasts, as well as mudflats and marshes. During breeding season the western population moves far inland to nest in grasslands and prairies near freshwater. Eastern Willets breed in coastal saltmarshes and on barrier beaches and islands.

Range Map Help

Willet Range Map
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Field MarksHelp

  • Breeding adult

    Willet

    Breeding adult
    • Large stocky shorebird with thick, straight bill
    • Breeding plumage birds are grayish-brown overall with darker markings
    • Pale gray back with some dark markings on wings
    • © Ganesh Jayaraman, Loyalton, California, June 2010
  • Nonbreeding adult

    Willet

    Nonbreeding adult
    • Long, thick black bill
    • Heavy-bodied
    • Long gray legs
    • Plain gray above, white below in nonbreeding plumage
    • © Greg Page, Galveston, Texas, August 2009
  • Adult in flight

    Willet

    Adult in flight
    • Large shorebird with boldly patterned black and white wings
    • Long, straight black bill
    • Long gray legs
    • Mostly gray above, white below
    • © Greg Page, Galveston, Texas, August 2009
  • Breeding adult (Eastern)

    Willet

    Breeding adult (Eastern)
    • Long, straight bill
    • Stocky body
    • Long gray legs
    • Breeding eastern birds show dense breast and flank streakings
    • © Jon Rowley, Anahuac NWR, Texas, April 2011
  • Breeding adult (Eastern)

    Willet

    Breeding adult (Eastern)
    • Large, stocky shorebird
    • Thick, straight bill
    • Breeding eastern birds have heavy dark streaking on breast and flanks
    • Gray legs
    • © Kyle McCreary, Bolivar Peninsula, Texas, April 2010
  • Breeding adult (Western)

    Willet

    Breeding adult (Western)
    • Large and heavy bodied with stout black bill
    • Long gray legs
    • Buffy wash on breast and flanks with sparse dark markings
    • Pale, sandy gray back
    • © Christopher L. Wood, Monroe County, New York, July 2011
  • First-summer (Western)

    Willet

    First-summer (Western)
    • Stocky shorebird with long, thick black bill
    • Long gray legs
    • Nonbreeding eastern birds are plain gray above, white below
    • © Bernie Monette, Clearwater, Florida, June 2010
  • Nonbreeding adult (Western)

    Willet

    Nonbreeding adult (Western)
    • Large, stocky shorebird with thick black bill
    • Only the western subspecies of Willet is seen in U.S. in winter
    • Pale gray above, white below
    • © Michael J. Andersen, La Jolla, California, February 2010
  • Nonbreeding adult (Western)

    Willet

    Nonbreeding adult (Western)
    • Heavy-bodied shorebird with stout black bill
    • Long gray legs
    • Pale gray above, white below
    • Only western subspecies is seen in U.S. in winter
    • © Brian L. Sullivan, Moss Landing, California, December 2008
  • Juvenile (Western)

    Willet

    Juvenile (Western)
    • Western form has longer neck, thinner bill than Eastern form
    • Large and heavy-bodied with straight black bill
    • Crisp markings on wings
    • Gray sides of neck, white belly
    • © Bob Devlin, Conaskonk Point, New Jersey, September 2008
  • Juvenile (Western)

    Willet

    Juvenile (Western)
    • Neck more slender than in Eastern form
    • Juvenile shows crisp markings on wings
    • Pale, sandy gray back
    • Long gray legs
    • © NatureFramingham, Chatham, Massachusetts, August 2010
  • Adult in flight

    Willet

    Adult in flight
    • Heavy-bodied with long, straight bill
    • Long wings mostly black underneath with bold white stripes
    • White belly
    • Long gray legs
    • © Andy Johnson, Sea Isle City, New Jersey, May 2011

Similar Species

  • Adult breeding

    Greater Yellowlegs

    Adult breeding
    • Superficially similar to Willet but smaller
    • Slender, shorter bill
    • Bright yellow legs
    • © Jeff Bernier, Edgartown, Massachusetts, April 2011
  • Adult breeding

    Wandering Tattler

    Adult breeding
    • Similar to Willet but smaller and more squat
    • Short, yellow legs
    • Long wings noticeable as Tattlers often perch in horizontal posture
    • © Jason Crotty, Pillar Point, California, April 2010
  • Adult

    Long-billed Dowitcher

    Adult
    • Similar to Willet, but pudgier with shorter greenish yellow legs
    • Very long, tapering bill
    • Bold white stripe above eye
    • Black and white barred tail
    • © Joan Gellatly, Gilbert, Arizona, March 2010
  • Adult Willet on left, adult Marbled Godwit on right

    Marbled Godwit

    Adult Willet on left, adult Marbled Godwit on right
    • Marbled Godwit is larger than Willet with very long, slightly upturned bill
    • Overall, more buffy and golden brown than Willet
    • Two-toned pink and black bill
    • Heavily patterned back and wings
    • © Kurt Hasselman, Assateague Island National Seashore, Virginia, April 2010
  • Adult breeding in flight

    American Avocet

    Adult breeding in flight
    • Wing coloration similar to Willet but American Avocets are otherwise distinctive
    • Underwings mostly snowy white, with black outer flight feathers
    • Very thin, upturned bill
    • Buffy orange head and breast, plain white belly
    • © Raymond Lee, Elk Island National Park, Alberta, Canada, June 2010

Similar Species

The Greater Yellowlegs is smaller than the Willet, with a more slender bill and bright yellow legs. American Avocets are slender and more boldly marked than Willets, with a much thinner, upturned bill. In flight, the white stripe on an avocet’s wing does not come all the way to the tip. Whimbrels are browner than Willets, with a clearly downcurved bill, a brown stripe over the eye, and without a white wing stripe. Marbled Godwits are buffier and browner, almost cinnamon or orange overall. Their bills are even longer than Willets’ bills (at least twice the length of the head), reddish at the base, and turn slightly upward at the end.

Regional Differences

Two distinct subspecies occur in North America: one that breeds in the East and another that breeds in the West. (Both subspecies may be seen along the East Coast during fall migration. Eastern Willets leave the U.S. in winter for Central and South America, while some Western Willets winter along the East Coast.) Western Willets are larger but more slender, with a narrower bill than Eastern Willets. Their breeding plumage is less strongly barred than their eastern counterparts.

Find This Bird

In winter, Willets are easy to spot feeding along the water’s edge. They’re one of the largest common shorebirds, so even though they’re indistinctly marked, you can learn to quickly recognize their overall chunky shape, subdued plumage, and thick, long bill. To be absolutely sure, look for distinctive black-and-white wing markings when they take flight, and listen for the pill-will-willet call that gives them their name.