The Wading Willet

Bird watching is never more challenging than when trying to distinguish between the distant, scuttling dots that are wading birds. Sandpiper, Dunlin, Plover, Godwit, Curlew, Redshank, Yellow legs, winter plumage, summer plumage, eastern, western. Arghhhhh! They are usually nervous and always fast in flight. These birds are only for the specialist spotter, the dedicated twitcher, the spotting scope aficionado. The incidental naturalists among us are wading dangerously close to getting out of our depth very quickly.

There is one American wader, though that is very happy to present itself as the first ‘tick’ on any bird spotters wader list – the Willet

A resting Willet

I have seen Willets along the East Coast of the United States, from breeding grounds at Sandy Hook, or Cape May in New Jersey, down to Florida, and round to the Florida Gulf Coast. The images in this post were all taken in Florida on various occasions.

The Willet is the beginners wader. This is because as well as stalking the distant estuary mudflats, it also appears on beaches, and the man-made rocky coastline of seaside towns. It is often comfortable in the presence of human activity, meaning a person can get quite close to them.

A Willet on a Florida beach

The pigeon-sized, long-legged willet does have two distinct colour phases, for summer and winter. The summer camouflage plumage is mottled brown, while the winter coat ranges from slate to silver gray. If the colouring, and close proximity is not enough for a positive identification, the willet has one more reveal. When the bird opens its wings it exposes unmistakable, and highly visible black and white bars.


The Willet’s distinctive black and white wing bars

In the 1900s the willet was a popular source of food. Eggs were taken in abundance, as were young, and adult birds. This harvesting resulted in a drop in the population to dangerous levels. Fortunately the species has rebounded and is now a common sight around coastal waters.

A wading winter Willet

The image above was taken at Howard Park Beach while I walked alongside the warm waters of the Gulf, enjoying the sounds, sights, and sea air. I perched on a rock at the waters edge. Within a few moments this silver Willet wandered past me, sifting the water through its beak, while keeping one eye on me. How well its camouflage worked against the shimmering mercury surface of the water, while its white underbelly, no doubt, made it invisible to its prey below.

As we enter the month of May the Willets have arrived at their breeding grounds. Head for the coastal dunes and wetlands, and look out for the unmistakable black and white wing bars as a Willet flashes past.


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I am a wildlife blogger and traveler, using images & stories to inspire wild connections.


  1. Thanks, David! What a great guide to identifying that sweet, silvery bird on the water’s edge watching me watch him! For me, knowing its name turns that bird or animal into a kind of a friend. And seeing those beautiful hidden bars in this otherwise simply dressed bird is like discovering treasure.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the kind comment, Roberta! This hidden bars are a real a treasure. I was actually waking around the Cape May, NJ wetlands last weekend and watched those wing bars flash by in the distance. It really makes them easy to identify.


  2. Thank you for another solid, fun, wonderful education on our natural world, David! Do especially love that last photo; the bird’s plumage definitely blends with the reflective gray water. So lovely. Happy to hear their numbers are less depleted!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. theafternoonbirder

    I got un-jetlagged enough to check out your blog 🙂 Great article! Shorebirds are my nemesis group. We don’t see Willets in Ottawa where I live (except in extremely rare circumstances). I enjoy them as an easier species to id when I visit Florida though!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for visiting! Glad you enjoyed the article, thanks for the kind comment! Florida is a great place to get close enough to shorebirds to tick a few off and grab some snaps while doing so! My shorebird identification has got a lot better since I took up photography.


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