Willet or Won’t It?

It is important to share the shore with shorebirds and respect their needs. Their lives depend on it.

~Walker Golder

This time of year, the beaches of North Carolina are breathing a sigh of relief as the huge tourist crowds of summer are starting to thin. They are also seeing lots of activity from wildlife, both on land and in the surf. The characters are changing daily as migrating birds, butterflies, fish, and other coastal creatures make their way to their winter destinations. But, on almost any beach in autumn, you are likely to see a couple of standard shorebirds – Sanderlings and Willets.


A Sanderling in a rare restful pose (click photos to enlarge)

The former are the wind-up toys of the shorebird world, rapidly running to and fro along the surf line in search of morsels exposed in each wave, and squabbling over the right to do so.

Willet on beach

Willet striding on the beach

The more stately of these two shorebirds, and one of our larger species, is the Willet. They are already in their winter plumage of drab gray above and a white belly (they are more brown during the breeding season). Since this one did not fly while I sat with it, I did not get to photograph their diagnostic bold black and white wing patterns, nor did I hear its piercing pill-will-willet call that is often given when they are in flight.

Willet probing 1

Willet probing the sand

Willet, and many other shorebirds, were once rare north of Virginia due to market hunting. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 banned this large scale hunting for food, and helped start a comeback for this now common species. New threats include habitat destruction and rising sea levels, and this combination may greatly restrict their access to suitable foraging and nesting areas in the future.

Willet probing

Searching the waves for a meal

Willets use their long gray legs to stride up and down the beach in search of food. Their stout bill is used to probe the sand (or mud when feeding in marsh edges and mudflats). The sensitive bill tip can detect prey which is then quickly grabbed. This also allows Willets to feed at night, when many other shorebirds, which rely solely on eyesight, cannot.

Willet with small mole crab

Snapping up a small Mole Crab

Favorite prey items include small fish, worms, mollusks, and crabs. On this afternoon, Mole Crabs were the main course. A tiny Mole Crab was snapped up and gulped all in one motion while I watched.
Willet with mole crab

Larger Mole Crabs require a little more work

Willet with mole crab 2

First, you need to carry them above the surf line

This particular Willet was quite adept at finding and catching the Mole Crabs as they surfaced to ride the wash from the surf back down the beach.
Willet with mole crab on beach 2

Then drop them on the sand

When it caught a large crab, the Willet would run back up above surf and drop it on the sand.
Willet with mole crab on beach 1

Maybe poke your food a little and get it in the right position

It seemed to poke at the crab a couple of times with its bill…
Willet with mole crab 3

Then pick it back up before the wave washes it away

and then would grab the crab just before the incoming wave might give it a chance at escape…
Willet swallowing mole crab 1

And gulp

and then the crab was picked it up and quickly swallowed head first.
Willet swallowing mole crab

It does finally go down

Seems akin to me swallowing a whole zucchini squash or half a loaf of bread all at once as it did take some doing, but, the lump soon disappeared and those long legs carried the hunter back into the foam for another try. Each time this Willet rushed toward the water, I wondered, “will it catch something?”…in the 10 or 15 minutes I watched, it caught three large Mole Crabs and one appetizer-sized one, not a bad percentage at all. Come to think of it, I could use a crab cake about now…