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In This Place

An Abundance of Willets Thanks to Conservation Efforts

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David Larson / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Just as tourist season is ramping up and the world seems to be closing in around us, breeding season for most of our local birds is winding down. Yards are full of noisy bands of this year’s model of chickadee, titmouse, and oriole, and spotty-breasted juvenile robins are seemingly everywhere figuring out how to stay alive. But it’s another local breeder I’ve been thinking about this week, one you might not know so well. And it’s not for any subtlety on their part – these noisy birds are always working hard to let you know they exist. I’m talking about Willets, the loud-mouthed protectors of the saltmarsh.

Put succinctly, a Willet is a big brown saltmarsh sandpiper. Upon closer inspection they are attractively mottled gray brown, with a long stout bill and lanky grayish legs. Silent Willets, if you can find such a rare version of a Willet, are best identified in flight – the open wings display an eye-catching black and white pattern unique among our shorebirds. They are often in the company of the similar Greater Yellowlegs, though Willets stay to nest while the yellowlegs continue north, like most sandpipers. The name of the yellowlegs tells you what you need to know to separate the two.

But it is in voice that the Willet really shines, or annoys, depending on your perspective. Whether they are escorting a crow from the marsh, mating in full view, or letting you know your hike has brought you too close to their chicks, Willets truly live life out loud. In the latter case, they will also fly straight at your face, veering off at the last second before that big bill puts out your eye – they don’t mess around when they have chicks.

As with Ospreys, when you see the success and abundance of Willets today, it’s hard to imagine that market gunners once wiped them out from Virginia to Nova Scotia. Back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, sandpipers and other shorebirds were table fare at fancy Boston restaurants, or adornments for ladies' hats in what would be a multibillion-dollar industry in today’s money. In the late 19th century, the rapid declines in waterbird populations thanks to this unregulated slaughter brought about the modern environmental movement with the creation of the Massachusetts and National Audubon Societies and the eventual passage of the still critically important Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

While conservation began over a century ago, it wasn't until recent decades that the Willet population fully recovered here. It probably didn’t help that John James Audubon himself had once described the species and their eggs as “tasty”. In my lifetime they’ve gone from entirely absent in Massachusetts to saturating suitable breeding habitat, mainly saltmarshes and the adjacent barrier beaches. In winter they head straight to Brazil, as we know thanks to a collaboration between biologist Joseph Smith of New Jersey and researchers at Martha’s Vineyard’s Biodiversity Works. Their tracking studies show that Willets from New Jersey to Massachusetts all winter along a short stretch of coast in Brazil, one also important to other wintering shorebirds, highlighting the hemispheric scale of shorebird conservation.

Thanks to the herculean efforts of conservationists past and present, you can watch these now common sandpipers feeding on fiddler crabs and standing guard over almost every local salt marsh, something unthinkable to ornithologists a century ago. Something to reflect on during your next visit to a saltmarsh, assuming the greenheads allow you to think. Finally, though I labored at length, I was unable to create one of my characteristically groanworthy endings - alas, this week, the writing gods simply wouldn’t will it...