A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


Among our most common large sandpipers, Willet is found on tidal mudflats, along coastal beaches, and in estuaries. Probably most easily observed in Sonoma County at Bodega Bay. Willet becomes relatively scarce in the county in early summer, but it's been recorded here in every month of the year. Common from around mid-July to mid-May of the following year. We mostly see Willet in its drab, grey winter (non-breeding) plumage (photo above), when it is remarkable mostly for being a pretty much uniform grey, although paler underneath and with a diffuse paler area at the lores; a little paler around the eye as well--often suggesting a white eyering. Even the legs are grey, but sometimes with a slight bluish tint. Our western subspecies (Tringa semipalmata inornata, sometimes referred to as “Western Willet”) is a little larger, paler, and more grey overall than its eastern counterpart (Tringa semipalmata semipalmata, sometimes referred to as “Eastern Willet”). Often stands resting on one leg and will sometimes hop around on one leg. May be solitary or in groups of up to a couple hundred birds, especially when roosting. Often in mixed flocks with Marbled Godwit, Dowitchers, Dunlin, Sanderlings, and/or small sandpipers. Older sources will list this bird as Catoptrophorus semipalmatus.

Birds in breeding plumage (photo below) can perhaps best be seen in Sonoma County in July. Again, Bodega Bay is likely the best bet. In breeding plumage, the bird is mottled brown and grey on top, lightly barred with grey-brown below. In breeding plumage, may resemble Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) or Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes), mottled shorebirds of about the same size. Note, however, that both the Yellowlegs species have bright yellow legs (as you might expect), and they are white rather than grey, mottled with black rather than greys and browns. Yellowlegs lack the black and white underwing pattern of Willet (see below). 

Willet shows a striking wing pattern in all plumages. If in doubt, wait until your bird flies or opens its wings (photo below), and suddenly the drab Willet shows an eye-catching pattern of black and white. In flight, also note the white rump and tail with a broad band of diffuse grey toward the end.

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 52

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 218

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 162

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, pg. 174

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, pp. 210-212, as Western Willet

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 126

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 146

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 159

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 186

Kaufman, Advanced Birding, 1990, pp. 64-67 (general notes on shorebird ID), p. 64

Kaufman, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, 2011, pp. 210-241 (general notes on shorebird ID), pp. 214, 218

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, p. 103-104, 106, 110

O’Brien, Crossley, and Karlson, The Shorebird Guide, 2006, p. 92, 93, 95-97,

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 29

Paulson, Shorebirds of North America: The Photographic Guide, 2005, pp. 130-133

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, pp. 144, 148

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, pp. 136, 156

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 134

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 159 

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, pp. 236-237

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 148

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Willet



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


Willet in breeding plumage, Bodega Bay, July 6, 2011

Willet in winter (non-breeding) plumage, Porto Bodega, Bodega Bay, January 11, 2012

Willet showing wing pattern, Bodega Bay, July 6, 2011


Tringa semipalmata

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated September 21, 2013

EBird reported occurrence in Sonoma County