While visiting our coastal salt marshes this summer, you may find it hard to believe that the Willet (Catoptrophorus semipalmatus) is listed as a species of special concern in Connecticut. Its cries of kyaah yah and will will WILLET fill the air as it takes flight over the marsh. Though this large member of the sandpiper family is doing well in selected large salt marshes along our shores, it remains a localized breeder, and the continued loss of shoreline habitat will undoubtedly threaten its ability to expand its range in the state.
Historically, the Willet was probably fairly common along Connecticut’s once plentiful and healthy salt marshes. But in the late 1800s, the adult birds were hunted and their eggs collected for human consumption. Consequently, the species was extirpated from the Northeast. No breeding Willets were again recorded in the state until 1976, over one hundred years later. Then in 1992, when Connecticut first enacted its endangered and threatened species list, the Willet was listed as threatened in the state. Thanks to this protection, Willet populations have increased in New England and in 1998 the species was downlisted to a species of special concern.
In the East, the Willet is found from Nova Scotia to the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. There is also a western population. This fairly nondescript sandpiper is grayish brown with a long, sturdy gray bill. At 14 to 17 inches long and with a wingspan of 24 to 30 inches, it resembles a greater yellow legs (Tringa melanoleuca), except its legs are not yellow, but gray. But once the Willet takes flight there is no mistaking it for another bird. A bold black and white wing pattern and a white rump identify this species.
The scientific species name, semipalmatus, refers to the Willet’s partially webbed feet, which allow it to swim, though it prefers to wade or walk along mudflats, salt marshes, tidal creeks and beaches in search of its food. It will probe for marine worms, aquatic insects, small fish, crustaceans and mollusks in shallow waters, or in mud or sand substrates.
Our local populations of Willet breed in salt marshes, on high ground to avoid submersion from the tides. A nest can be a simple depression in the salt marsh grasses, lined with dried grasses. The female lays four olive-green eggs splotched with dark brown, the perfect coloration and pattern to hide among this sea of grass. Both parents will incubate the eggs that hatch sometime in June. Their precocial young, born with downy feathers and eyes open, are ready to leave the nest almost immediately. Willets are noisiest when protecting a nest or their offspring. Get too close and the adults will fly up, sound the alarm and scold you until you depart the area. Please respect their wishes and always, always keep pets on leashes when walking near salt marshes, beaches and other coastal habitats.