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.
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.