Bird of the week: Willet | Rowboat key

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Although not the most showy shorebirds, these common, stocky birds, with their long legs and long straight beak (which are considerably longer than their heads), are distinguished by being among the most large members of the sanderlings family.

With their marbled plumage of breeding brown and solid gray otherwise, they dominate other sanderlings. But they still reveal their distinctive pattern under the black and white wings when they take flight, making them easier to identify.

Two distinct subspecies of willets occur in North America: one that breeds in the east and another that breeds in the west. Both varies can be found in Florida in the winter. But only the Eastern Willets spend their summers here.

On our beaches, you will often see willets walking near the water’s edge, where they feed on invertebrates and small fish. Because they find prey using the sensitive tips of their beaks, and not just sight, willets can feed both during the day and at night.

These birds with fairly simple plumage were not targeted by the plume trade, which has wiped out so many species of shorebirds. But they too nearly disappeared in the 19th century, as they were largely hunted for food. Due to their size, they were an easy target for hunters.

And, many have found them to be very good to eat. Even famous bird watcher and naturalist John James Audubon noted how tasty the willets, their offspring, and even their eggs were.

Now protected by the Migratory Birds Treaty Act, willets, like all shorebirds, continue to be threatened by habitat loss and degradation. And climate change and rising sea levels can cause them to lose their foraging and breeding grounds.

Save our Seabirds is a non-profit organization whose mission is to save and rehabilitate
sick and injured birds, releasing as many as they can, while educating our community on
avoid injuries and preserve habitats.

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