WilletCatoptrophorus semipalmatus (Gmelin)
Status Fairly common in summer. Breeds. Generally first arrives in late April (average 22 April, earliest 9 April; see Remarks for earlier individual on Sable Island). It now breeds in coastal areas provincewide, having become increasingly common and widespread in the past 20 years. Most depart in August, with last sightings regular in October, rarely later (average 7 October, latest 29 November). On Sable Island, two very late stragglers were noted on 21 December 1973 (P. Dunning). In light of these records, Robert Turner's convincing report of one near Lockeport in January 1984 is perhaps a little less surprising. (See Remarks for discussion of probable racial status of these late birds.)
Description Length: 35-43 cm. Adults: Upperparts gray, the head and neck streaked with dusky brown; back barred with blackish brown; uppertail coverts mostly white; basal half of primaries and greater part of secondaries white; rest of wings blackish brown; underparts white, streaked and spotted with dusk brown on foreneck and breast; flanks barred with dusky brown; axillars and underwing coverts blackish brown; bill blackish brown, paler at base; legs and feet bluish gray.
Breeding Nest: On the ground, usually well concealed among low-growing bushes in open fields or bushy pastures and usually, if not always, in the vicinity of salt marshes. The nest is a shallow depression with a lining of dry vegetable matter.
Eggs: 4 (one record of 5); olive or buff, thickly spotted with chocolate-brown, mostly about the larger end. They sometimes nest in loose colonies, perhaps 8-10 pairs scattered over 40 ha. A nest containing four fresh eggs was found at Chebogue, Yarmouth County, on 25 May 1930, concealed under a clump of blueberry bushes about 100 m from a salt marsh. Another at Chebogue contained four eggs on 19 June 1923. The bird sat so "close" that I was able to place a metal band on its leg without causing it to leave the nest (undoubtedly the eggs were about to hatch). On 5 August 1920 at Grosses Coques, Digby County, about 20 young showing traces of natal down were observed feeding along brackish pools.
Range In the east, breeds along the coast in Nova Scotia, recently in New Brunswick and southwestern Newfoundland, and from (rarely) southern Maine to Florida and other Gulf Coast states to Texas. Also in the central United States and the Prairie Provinces. Winters from British Columbia and Virginia, south to South America and the West Indies.
Remarks These large, showy shorebirds are quite spectacular, especially when encountered on their nesting grounds. At first approach, an intruder is met by the excited and protesting members of the scattered colony which unite, often circling low overhead or alighting on treetops or other convenient perches, all scolding vehemently: pill-will-willet pill-will-willet, given in rapid succession. This barrage continues until the enemy retreats, followed by the birds for some distance as though being chased away.
The large white marks on its wings, conspicuous in flight, have led to its being called "white-wings" by countryfolk throughout much of its breeding range.
Our nesting birds are Catoptrophorus semipalmatus semipalmatus. Birds of the prairie subspecies, Catoptrophorus semipalmatus inornatus, are regular on the U.S. coast in fall migration, usually after eastern birds have departed. They are larger, longer-billed, longer-legged and recognizably paler and grayer than eastern birds. The first sight record of a western Willet in Nova Scotia was on Sable Island on 30 August 1969 (D.W. Finch). Since then, several have been reported (one collected, two photographed) after 25 August. It is possible that most of our late Willets are from this western population. More surprising was a bird, evidently of this race, on Sable Island on 2 April 1972 (photograph in McLaren 1981a).
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