After savoring the beautiful scientific name Catoptrophorus semipalmatus for more than 200 years, scientists have seen fit to change it to Tringa semipalmata. The common name remains the same: willet. But the bird’s Latin binomial has been redubbed due to DNA analysis that suggested it belonged with the Tringini tribe.
Yet Catoptrophorus was so appropriate. It was derived from Greek and translates to “mirror bearer” — a fitting and charming reference to the broad white (against black) stripe in a willet’s wing, seen only while flying. This characteristic alone makes this bird perhaps the easiest North American shorebird to quickly identify in flight.
There are two distinct populations of willets. The eastern one nests near the New England and Canadian maritime coasts, shunning fresh water, while the western group nests near ponds, lakes or potholes far away from any ocean. This is the population that breeds in North Dakota, even in wetland-sparse Cass County.
Identify a willet, it is said, and you will have a great starting point for ID’ing the rest of the shorebirds. Willets are large, stout, long-legged birds with somewhat long, straight, thick bills. In the winter, they are feathered an overall medium gray. In the spring, the breeding plumage is a subdued and mottled gray, brown and black—not unlike the look of granite.
It shares some traits with the more familiar killdeer. First, both birds’ common names are imitative of their calls. Second, both species use a bogus “broken wing” display to lure potential predators away from nests or nestlings. Finally, both have rather bold wing striping.
A willet’s wing stripe, as mentioned above, makes it a no-brainer when it comes to identifying its owner in flight. There really is nothing else quite like a zebra among shorebirds. It seems odd that such an otherwise nondescript bird would sport such a startling wing pattern.
I’m not sure why some shorebirds flock together by the hundreds, even thousands, while other species prefer a more solitary existence, but willets are of the latter ilk. Rarely will you see them buddied up in groups. Maybe they just don’t play well with others.
From a distance of perhaps 30 feet, I once watched two males during a territorial dispute. These birds were so amazingly intent on their business that they utterly ignored my presence. Calling and posturing in an aggressive sort of do-si-do, they strutted around each other for several minutes in a fashion quite like a pair of dueling mountain goats I once observed.
Encountering these birds during the breeding season is a natural treat. Aerial displays are performed high overhead by hovering and fluttering and calling “pill-will-willet” loudly and incessantly. If there is a nest nearby, you will know it rather quickly as these are birds that vigorously defend their site, physically and aurally. The worried adults will hover and dive — while uttering various alarm calls — until you depart.
One thing I find puzzling is the fact that I have found nesting willets in a few scattered sites in Cass County where there is no longer any native prairie, while a shorebird survey I run in Richland and Ransom counties through some rich prairie habitat nets zero willets. Curious.
Adult females abandon the nesting area about two weeks after her brood has hatched, leaving the male to tend to the young. As a result, “fall” migration has already begun. Several shorebird species are now on the move in fact, being quite efficient at raising families during short but intense Northern Hemisphere summers.
The eastern and western populations of willet may very well end up separated into their own species soon. Keep your pencils sharpened for just such a change. They won’t, however, get their old genus back, I’m sure of that.
Latin may be considered a “dead” language, but it is still very much alive in biology. Every living entity in the world comes with its own Latinized binomial assigned to it, usually by its first describer. I can only tip my hat to a guy named Gmelin, a German naturalist who gave the willet its name in 1789. Somehow Catoptrophorus, “mirror bearer,” just seemed so right, so very well thought out.