Usually around April 15th the willets return to Big Valley CA where we live. Leonard usually hears their distinctive call first and then we go out in search of the birds. This year he heard these members of the sandpiper family on April 16th  – right on schedule.

Willets (Tringa semipalmatus) are large shorebirds that winter along the coast in the United States and also along the South American coasts. There are two subspecies, the eastern and western, separated by subtle differences in their environment, call and physical characteristics. The western willets are larger and have a longer bill and legs. In addition, the western plumage is generally paler. Western willets move far inland to breed in grasslands and prairies near fresh water, while eastern willets stay on the coastal marshes and beaches to breed.

During the breeding season willets are mottled brown above with barring on the lighter breast and sides. During the winter they are gray above and white below. The straight bill and long legs are blue-gray. In flight a bold black and white stripe can be seen running the length of each wing – a very distinctive field marking.

Willets can often be observed alone walking in the sand or mudflats and marshes, pausing often to pick and probe for the small fish, aquatic beetles, spiders, worms and small crabs that comprise their diet. Feeding during both the day and night, willets use their eyes as well as the tips of their sensitive bills to find prey. Occasionally they paddle in the water.

Mated pairs usually stay together for several years and return to the same nest sites. Males and females share the responsibility of incubating and feeding the chicks, however, once the chicks are almost grown, the female will leave the nest early and leave the male to finish raising the family. Willets also use the broken-wing ploy to lure predators away from their eggs and babies.

These pictures were all taken at Ash Creek Wildlife Area (Modoc County CA) near our house.

Now that the willets are back Leonard and I await the return of  kingbirds, orioles and barn swallows, among others.

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