Where Do Willets Winter?

June 1, 2009 by Gregory Gough


Scientists from The Nature Conservancy of New Jersey and the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center have joined together to try to determine where the willets that nest in New Jersey spend the winter. Willets are known to range from southern Virginia to South America during the nonbreeding season but where the New Jersey birds, in particular, go is a mystery.

To figure out the wintering grounds of the willet, scientists attach devices that record information about a bird's environment, geolocators, to one of its legs. When researchers remove the device the following spring it reveals where the bird has been.

In the summer of 2009, scientists tagged 5 birds in the salt marshes of New Jersey. This year, only 1 returned with the geolocator intact. You can see it on the leg of the bird below. The bird also has colored leg bands that allow it to be identified by sight.

large gray bird with long beak and colored plastic bands on its leg as well as a geotracking device

© John Herbert

It departed from the New Jersey coast on July 31, 2009 and flew non-stop over the Atlantic Ocean until it arrived on the South American coast in French Guiana August 3. It stayed there until the August 22 when it moved permanently to Brazil. It went to an area that contains one of the largest tracts of mangroves in the world near Sao Luis (between Belem and Fortaleza). Survey flights revealed high numbers of willets there, along with an abundance of other shorebirds.

This year, 30 birds will be fitted with geolocators.

gray bird sitting in trap

The bird in the picture to the right is caught in a trap over its nest. It will be fitted with a unique combination of colored leg bands as well as a geolocator.

Little is known about eastern willets, but all shorebirds on the East Coast are considered "species of concern." Learning more about their biology, especially where they are half the year, can help us protect them.