Natural La Jolla: Willets, whimbrels and godwits forage winter shores



On almost any walk along the beach, particularly at the Shores, you’ll see foraging shorebirds with long legs, wandering along the tideline and into the water halfway up their legs, probing in the sand with their long beaks to find buried prey like insects and invertebrates.

There are three commonly-seen long-legged large shorebirds at this time of year. If you can find and identify these three, then other sandpipers and shorebirds should become easier to distinguish.

Willets (Tringa semipalmata), flat gray during the winter, have a shrill call (they call loudly when startled) and a distinctive white and black banded pattern along the length of their wings when flying. Their beak is straight, longer than their head and their legs are bluish-gray. They generally forage alone, and can use the tips of their beaks as well as their eyes to look for little clams and worms. This way they can forage both day and night.

Whimbrels (Numenius phaeopus) are probably the easiest of the trio to identify because of their long downward curving beak. These are also tall shorebirds. They are more buffy mottled brown and have a sharp light stripe over their eyes. They also probe in the sand for invertebrates and especially like small crabs. They will also eat pick and eat berries if they come across them.

Marbled godwits (Limosa fedoa), the third of our trio this month, are recognizable by their long beak that is slightly turned up at the end. The bill is pinkish near the head, then gets progressively darker toward the tip. Overall, the body is more banded brown and cinnamon than the whimbrel, and the godwit has dark gray legs. Godwits also forage in the swash zone (where the tide is coming in and going out), looking for insects.

A good time for spotting these birds is during a receding tide, and you should get to see all three species together in the same area, allowing for comparison of size, plumage coloration and habits. Plus a late afternoon stroll is perfect for watching the sun go down over the water!

Kelly Stewart is a marine biologist with The Ocean Foundation who writes about the flora and fauna of La Jolla. She may be reached by e-mail: