Tringa semipalmata
Range Map

Western Willets can be found year-round in San Diego, though only non-breeders stay for the summer. Breeding occurs in the Great Basin, central Rocky Mountains and northern prairies. When seen foraging or loafing on land, these birds are plain looking. They show no bold markings to call attention to themselves. But when they take flight, their wings spread to show a flash of black and white bars and the impression is quite surprising and pleasing.

Science recognises two subspecies of Willet breeding in North America:

  • T. s. inornata, or Western Willet, breeds in freshwater habitats of the interior western USA and Canada’s prairie provinces.
  • T. s. semipalmata, or Eastern Willet, breeds on the Atlantic coast and the Gulf of Mexico and north to Newfoundland in Canada.

Some scientists believe these two forms deserve full species status. In winter these birds may travel as far as the Pacific coast of South America, even below the equator. Further complicating the scientific classification of Willets, the genus Tringa has recently replaced the genus Catoptrophorus for this species. There is still some disagreement about how the family tree for the Willet should be structured.

When I was on my way to Alaska in 2005, I found a pair of breeding birds near Lake Crowley in California. I wasn’t looking for them, but they were raising a ruckus. I left my vehicle parked on the dirt track I was exploring and walked out through the sage to meet them. After collecting a few images as they posed atop the sage, I walked back to my Samurai and halfway to my rig I discovered what all the fuss was about. Lying on open ground, with no sign of nest preparation, was a single egg. It was right on the trail back to the Samurai and I might have easily trodden on it had I not been watching my step.

During my spring 2020 expedition to Texas, I met Willets at Aransas NWR and in Rockport during March on the central gulf coast, and later in May at Bahia Grande between Brownsville and Port Isabel. The March birds could have been Eastern Willets or overwintering Western Willets, but May birds were most likely Eastern Willets on their breeding grounds.

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