A Plain Jane, resting on a tuft of grass at the marsh edge, backlit, I at first thought she was a stone. A slight turn of the head and upon closer look, not a stone but a very large shorebird, with feathers worn in a subdued arrangement of brown and white—still, nothing special. Then she began to unfold her long elegant wings. Boldly barred in chocolate brown, this Plain Jane was swiftly transformed to Beauty Queen.
Willets are one of the few shorebirds that nest not in the Arctic tundra, but prairie and salt marshes of America and Canada. For over one hundred years Willets were hunted to non-existence in Massachusetts. Biologists have a name for this tragic occurrence, when a species is not extinct, but is no longer present in an area, and the term is extirpated. Because of the Migratory Bird Act of 1918, the Willet population is increasing and the Massachusetts coastline has once again become a safe home for these beautiful members of the sandpiper family.
Belonging to the same genus as yellowlegs, they do look similar to Greater Yellowlegs, but are comparatively larger, their beaks are thicker, and their legs are not yellow but gray. Look for Willets on beaches, marshes, mudflats, and rocky coasts. They forage on crabs and other small crustaceans, worms, mollusks, fish, and grass. The call of the Willet is unmistakable, piercing and urgent and their name comes from the ringing “pill-will-willet.”