Sunday, April 29, 2012

Willet fall-out!

Yesterday was partly cloudy, with a scattering of Willets.
Willets alight, photo by Kim Graham
Large numbers of Willets were reported from two separate locations in Ohio, leading one to believe their migration was disrupted by weather conditions. Their colorful wings gave flashes of light to the otherwise gray on gray, birds on weathered board.

The well-known boardwalk at Galena, Ohio juts out into Hoover Reservoir.  We have seen many remarkable birds from this location, but nothing to compete with this phenomenal sighting!  Gulls lined the far end, while 115 Willets gathered on the midsection of the hand-rail.  Once settled in, their plain tones falsely suggest this is an everyday occurrence.  Non-birders were hard pressed to understand our excitement.

E- bird's map of Willet sightings in Ohio is most useful.  Not only does it show the location of previous sightings, more frequently on the shores of lake Erie, it also marks this boardwalk at  Hoover Reservoir.  It is the red flag near the center of the state, slightly north-east of the city of Columbus.

 Several times the birds spooked from the rails, circled overhead and returned again to the rail.

Willet  flock, photo by Kim Graham
After a resting period, the birds would fly out toward the edge of the reservoir, as if searching for mudflats or shore to provide forage. Unfortunately for them, the high water at Hoover has reduced the littoral edge to nil.

Willets in flight, Photo by Kim Graham
 Their misfortune provide an opportunity for a handful of people. We witnessed their return to the rail over and over again: resting, seeking shore, resting.  The birds spent the afternoon and early evening at Hoover- finally flying away for good as the sun was setting.

Willet at St. Mary's Fish Hatchery, Sept. '09, photo Cheryl Harner
 Willets, Tringa semipalmata have ranged from being uncommon in the late 1880's - to very rare.  They were hunted to near extinction, as one of the few sandpipers who bred in the lower forty-eight states.  Other shorebird species which migrate to the arctic were able to breed without human "pressures," while the Willets took the brunt of the abuse.

Their presence in Ohio has been generally noted with sporadic sightings of singles or pairs.  Until now, the largest gathering ever noted in Peterjohn's The Birds of Ohio, was 50 in Cleveland in August of 1976.

 The 115 Willets that toured Hoover in April 2012 will have birders talking for years.

Single Willet in flight, Kim Graham
Several photos in this blog have been graciously provided by Kim Graham of (Click on the link to see all of her lovely work.)  He beautifully captured the event for all of prosperity.  Hopefully he will forgive me for cropping out a single image from his work to show you the color of a Willet in flight.

In the past, I have erroneously regarded willets as rather dull birds of gray color. All I have seen heretofore have been foraging on mudflats, and looked rather unspectacular.  To experience 115 Willets on a fly-by was both breath-taking, and eye-opening.  These birds are as stunning as they are vociferous in flight; the dull gray bird becomes a brilliant striped banner of black and white as it takes to the sky.

Willets are considered a conservation success and their population numbers are climbing. Certainly that is good news we can all relish, but even if their numbers sky-rocket on the breeding grounds, chances are, we'll not see another sighting like this in Ohio, ever again.


  1. Impressive when you see a large group of Willets. They are more solitary.

  2. Thank you for this information! I live near you, in Galion, and plan to go to Hoover Res. tomorrow, if possible, and with any luck the willets will still be hanging around.