I stop by Arrowhead Marsh when I’m in the vicinity of Oakland Airport . . . which is a lot, considering I’m with a guy who, essentially, commutes to work by plane. It’s my consolation in solitude to stroll through the marshes with my camera after I bid farewell to Southwest or Jet Blue.

During my last walk, I spotted what I like to call the “quiet nation” — the low bubbling of shorebird voices that always signifies a mixed flock huddled for sleep along the rocks or the mud.

With the exception of birders in the area — who number zero to thirty on any given outing — most people don’t notice the clusters of “Willet grey” just meters from their view. It’s only when the Willets take to flight, flashing the striking black and white of their wings, that passersby tend to ask, “what kind of bird is that?” It wasn’t too long ago I wouldn’t have been able to answer that question myself, showing how quickly my interest and passion has grown.

Although shorebirds are fairly acclimated to humans, I always approach gradually, doing my best to impersonate a rock but fully aware that they see me through all of my permutations.

Willet Facts:

  • According to Cornell’s All About Birds, Willets are the only North American sandpipers whose breeding range extends into the tropics
  • East Coast and West Coast Willets have subtle call variations, not easily detected by humans, but easily discerned by them
  • Willets eat aquatic insects, invertebrates and small mollusks
  • As with many animals in North America, Willets were at one time over-hunted but their numbers have had health recovery

The flock pictured here had the common species mix of Willets, Marbled Godwits, and Black Turnstones. Sometimes you’ll also find Long-billed Curlews, American Avocets and Whimbrels, among other shorebirds in the huddle.

It’s an extreme reward to be on a beach, entrenched so long that the plovers and the sandpipers start to accept you as a fixture. And I’ve had the experience of them huddling around within arm’s reach, barely noticing the mirror slap of my shutter as they nestle into sleeping position. There are few nature experiences so poignant as to be invited into the trust and the fold of wild animals who have every reason to keep their distance from humans.

The picture below was taken on one such magical morning among a huge flock of Black-bellied plovers.

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