Wonderful Willets -June 2018
A Shorebird Comeback
by: Virginia Andrews
A medium-sized shorebird with modest, almost non-descript brown plumage, a Willet wading peacefully about its business might be easy to overlook. But if a hawk, person, dog, crow or other intruder comes too near, the response is immediate and impossible to ignore:
“wil-wil-WILLET! WIL-WILLET, WIL-WILLET, WIL-WILLET!”
It is more like a piercing shout than a call. As it rings loudly over the marsh, there is nothing modest about it. When more than one bird gets into the act, the cacophony is positively deafening. Disturbed birds circle and circle in the air, brown wings flashing with a broad white stripe, calling and calling and calling some more. Sometimes one will perch on a convenient post and simply stand, regardless of people nearby, laying down the law for all to hear.
This is what ornithologists call a distraction display. Parent birds not only alert the young to stay hidden and warn all the neighbors, they also try to draw predators away from nests or young. They will keep up the screaming until the intruder retreats. Even John James Audubon was im-
pressed by the Willets’ vociferous response. So it is appropriate that they are named for their call, rather than some obscure plumage detail, unlike many North American birds.
Although well-known to Native Americans, many species unfamiliar to Europeans were discovered by early explorers who sent specimens back to their patrons at home, who in turn claimed credit for the discovery. They assigned many of the names used today, including a binomial Latin name. These in turn are revised as DNA and behavioral studies change our perspective on the species and its relationship to others closely related. Willets used to be in their own monotypic genus but are now shown to be related to the Lesser Yellowlegs. To science, Willets are now Tringa semipalmata. But the common name, Willet, is actually connected to observable behavior, as anyone walking by can experience.
Willets are a near-Arctic species. This means that they breed mostly within the zoogeographic region of North America, which encompasses Alaska and Arctic Canada to the north, down through the United States into northern Mexico and the Caribbean. In the fall they migrate as far south as Chile to the west or Argentina to the east. Some live year-round in the Caribbean.
There are two subspecies. We can see both on Nantucket. One is called the Western Willet, and the other, with an unexpected flourish of logic, the Eastern Willet. Both have plain gray legs and straight, sturdy dark bills of medium length. Both have the broad white stripe, lined with black, running through the center of the extended wings, which can be seen in flight. They also raise their wings in territorial display, making an elegantly graphic lyre-like shape. Eastern and Western Willets are closely related, but have slightly different morphology, voices and habitats.
Western Willets are a bit larger, taller and paler in color. Their call is slightly different, though
not particularly noticeable to the human ear. It requires a sonograph to separate the two. Female Willets, on the other hand, appear to have no trouble knowing who is who in the dating pool. Western Willets go inland in the breeding season, nesting in the Prairie Pothole region, nursery of many shorebirds. Some go as far west as northern California. We may see one or two here occasionally, on migration in the fall or early winter. They are as likely to be found in a farm field as on a sandbar or mudflat.
Eastern Willets, on the other hand, are plentiful on Nantucket. Arriving as early as the end of April, June marks the peak of nesting season here. Marine specialists, they hug the Atlantic coast, delighting in salt water. They have a faster call than their western relatives. They breed mainly in salt marshes, but also on barrier dunes or sand spits. The male makes a scrape on the ground and hunkers down, pressing it into shape. The female follows suit. The pair may try several sites before agreeing on a spot. The nest is lined with grasses, nestled down in a dry area above the wrack line. This presents a potential hazard since extra-high tides in an early-summer storm can flood the nest and wipe out the eggs. If early enough in the process, the birds may attempt to re-nest, although generally they produce only one brood per year.
They usually lay four eggs, which are incubated by both parents in turn. The chicks hatch in anywhere from a little over three weeks to almost a month later. The young are fuzzy brown balls of cuteness, like animated plush toys. Led by their parents, they can walk and feed themselves within a day of pecking their way out of the shell. They eat a variety of seafood delicacies like marine worms, small fish or crabs. On ocean beaches it is likely they are after mole crabs, while fiddler crabs are more of a marsh delicacy. If a morsel is too big to swallow whole, they take it one claw at a time, shaking it loose and downing one part before tackling the next. They sometimes dunk a worm several times to get the mud off before slurping it.
After two or three weeks females depart, while males stay and continue to tend the young until they can fly. Today Willets breed in a number of places on Nantucket, but that wasn’t always the case.
Common as Eastern Willets are now, if a timetraveling ornithologist such as Edward Howe Forbush could see our state now, he would be astounded. In 1925 he lamented, “Unless the most stringent measures for its protection are taken it will disappear as a breeder from the entire Atlantic coast ... The Willet is now too rare to be of any economic importance in New England.”
As long ago as the 1840s, Willets were declining. Audubon noted that they “historically” bred in New Bedford. Egg collection and hunting of adult birds for their meat took a steady toll. George H. Mackay, an avid 19th and early 20th century sportsman, kept a detailed shooting journal, giving a vivid picture of 19th century sport-hunting. But among the many notations about shorebirds Willet are only mentioned three times.
On a trip to Lake Champlain in October 1865, although he shot more than 100 birds, only four of them were Willets. The following year, on Palmetto Island in South Carolina, he bagged five. His last hunting note was of one bird shot at Hummock Pond on Nantucket in August 1875. One nest was found on Muskeget in 1870, and five birds were seen in May 1895.
Under the relentless pressure of sport and market gunning, Eastern Willets were disappearing up and down the coast. By around 1900 there were no nesting pairs between Nova Scotia and New Jersey. Mackay, interested in all forms of ornithology, also became an ardent conservationist. He was instrumental in helping to establish game laws to protect migratory birds, including Willet.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 turned the tide, but it took time. A flock of 20 Willet were seen on Nantucket in April 1945. But by 1976 only one pair was nesting in the whole state of Massachusetts, on Monomoy Island. Twentyfive years later Willet had recolonized our entire coastline, with breeding confirmed in 53 study blocks, seven of them on Nantucket. They made a lengthy but amazing comeback.
But recent studies also indicate that the overall population has again begun a decline, and environmental law is itself under assault. On this, the 100-year anniversary of the treaty that saved them, these now-common birds are a good reminder that we really can make a difference in and to our environment. Willets will continue to call if we will it. ///
Virginia Andrews writes “Island Bird Sightings” for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821. She also leads bird walks for the Maria Mitchell Association.