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Numenius phaeopus - Whimbrel

Whimbrel image

Geographic range:

Eastern and Western Arctic, both coasts of the U.S., coasts of Mexican islands, Chile and Brazil

Key features:

Similar to other large, brown sandpipers, the Whimbrel has a distinct head pattern of dark and light alternating brown and tan stripes. It also has a long, dark brown, down curved bill and long gray legs.

Similar species:

Limosa fedoa -- Marbled Godwit
Numenius americanus -- Long-billed Curlew

Habitat(s):

bay (sandy shore), exposed sandy beaches, protected sandy beaches
 

Primary common name:

Whimbrel

Synonymous name(s):

Spanish: Zarapito trinador

General grouping:

Seabirds and shorebirds

ITIS code:

176599
 

Geographic Range

Range Description:

The Whimbrel breeds in the Arctic in both the eastern and western hemispheres, along the coast of Alaska across to the Yukon Territory; and in Canada south and west of Hudson Bay from Manitoba to north Ontario. It also breeds in northern Europe and Russia. When migrating they frequent coastal and inland fields, tidal mudflats, estuarine marshes, and sandy beaches or rocky shorelines for food. The Whimbrel winters on both coasts of the U.S. from northern California and North Carolina southward along the coast and on the offshore islands of Mexico, and on to the coasts of Chile and Brazil. Old World populations winter in Africa, Asia, and Australia.

Habitats

bay (sandy shore), exposed sandy beaches, protected sandy beaches

Habitat notes:

Like other sandpipers, this birds wades along the shore of habitats with soft bottoms (sandy, muddy) and probes for buried invertebrate prey using its very long, curved bill.

Abundance

Relative abundance:

Common in winter.

Species Description

General description:

A member of the sandpiper family, the Whimbrel has four distinct subspecies: Numenius phaeopus hudsonicus. Occurs in northwestern Alaska and also western Hudson Bay, wintering from south central US to South America. Numenius phaeopus phaeopus. Occurs in Iceland, Faeroes (Faroe Islands) and northern Scotland through Scandinavia to Yenisey and southwestern Taymyr (Siberia), wintering from southwestern Europe and Africa through Middle East to western India. Numenius phaeopus variegatus. Occurs in northeastern Siberia, wintering from eastern India to Taiwan, and south through Philippines and Indonesia to Australasia. Numenius phaeopus alboaxillaris – steppes north of Caspian Sea; winters on islands and coasts of west Indian Ocean, rare and endangered. These subspecies differ only in their plumage: Numenius phaeopus hudsonicus, the Whimbrel seen here in the U.S., has less whitish ground color in the underparts and rump than N. p. variegatus and N. p. phaeopus. The genus name, Numenius, means “of the new moon” and describes the Whimbrel’s long, crescent shaped bill which fits perfectly into the curve of a burrow made by a fiddler crab. Numenius phaeopus hudsonicus is a large, sturdy, but sleek shorebird/wader, with a distinct head pattern of dark and light alternating brown and tan stripes, with a dark eye line, and dark brown eyes. The rest of the plumage is mottled buffy-brown all over, streaked on the neck, upper breast, and tail, and is the same regardless of season or sex. The wings are pointed and the underwings are light. The bill is long, 89 mm (3.5 in), longer in the female, down-curved near the tip, and dark brown in summer. In winter there is a pinkish hue along the base of the bill. The neck is relatively long, as are the gray legs. The belly is white. In flight, it appears brown all over with a white belly and blackish outer wings, and legs just reaching the tail. Juveniles are buffier and have more light feather edgings on the back and wings and finer streaking on the neck and chest. The crown stripe is less distinct. The Whimbrel has a variety of sounds from its call like a rippling whistle or twitter to a prolonged trill as its song. Their alarm call is a harsh squawk.

Distinctive features:

A large brown, mottled wader with 3 inch (7.5 cm) or more, long, dark brown, down curved bill and long gray legs.

Size:

Length: 45 cm (17.5 in) Wingspan: 81 cm (32 in) Weight: 390 g (14 oz)

Natural History

General natural history:

The Whimbrel breeds in subartic and alpine tundra and taiga (the subarctic coniferous forests located south of the tundra in North America, northern Europe, and Asia) where it is found in dry heath uplands, dwarf shrub and mossy lowlands, not far from the tree line. It winters where it can forage in tidal flats, mangroves, exposed reefs, sandy or rocky beaches, estuaries, and especially mudflats. In spring, Whimbrels may congregate in farmlands in numbers of up to several hundred. They probe the mud or pick food from the surface. On mudflats they may feed singly or in small groups at low tide. At high tide they gather and roost in dense flocks and will often fly long distances between roosting and feeding areas. They often migrate with other shorebirds, and often act as a sentinel species. Very wary, Whimbrels are often the first to alert other birds to danger. Their alarm call is a harsh squawk. Few Whimbrels succumb to predators because of their vigilance. En route to their wintering grounds they stop at coastal and inland fields and beaches to forage, although some make a nonstop flight of 4,000 km (2,500 miles) from southern Canada or New England to South America. They generally feed alone or in small, widespread clusters. They move along and probe deeply as they feed. If the item is large it is torn into smaller pieces before ingesting it. If it is muddy it is often rinsed. Indigestible parts are excreted in fecal pellets. At most times of year, they defend some kind of territory. During their migration, they defend a feeding territory at each stop that is guarded against other Whimbrels. They roost and migrate in large flocks, preferring to roost on exposed shoals, tops of mangrove trees or in shallowly flooded clearings in mangroves that face the open sea. By November most have reached their coastal wintering grounds where foraging is good. Some of their wintering grounds are concentrated at key sites in South America, where they face threats from hunters, land developers, and pollution. This is also the case in the U.S. with the exception of hunting, which is banned. Juvenile birds may remain at their wintering sites for up to two years. From March through May adults journey northward to their breeding and nesting grounds. Breeding and reproduction is completed in approximately two months.

Predator(s):

Foxes Large raptors

Prey:

In breeding season: insects, snails, slugs, and later in the summer berries and even flowers, picked with the tip of the bill. During migration and winter: worms, grubs, crabs (especially Fiddler Crabs and it is interesting to note that the curve of the Whimbrel bill matches the curve of the crab burrow), shrimp, mollusks, worms, and other small aquatic organisms, by inserting its bill to various depths.

Feeding behavior

Carnivore

Feeding behavior notes:

The Whimbrel employs two different behaviors when feeding. On the breeding grounds it picks with the tip of its bill surface items like insects, slugs, snails; and in late summer, leaves, flowers and berries. During migration and on their wintering grounds a Whimbrel probes with its long bill in tidal flats, mangroves, estuarine marshes, exposed reefs, sandy or rocky beaches, estuaries, and especially mudflats. They generally feed alone or in small, spread out parties. It feeds on mudflats at the tideline with other wading birds and sandpipers. Whimbrels move as they feed, probing deeply, especially in fiddler crab (Family Ocypodidae) burrows. If the prey is muddy it is often rinsed. Large prey items are torn into smaller pieces before being eaten. Indigestible parts are excreted in fecal pellets.

March - May

Migration:

Whimbrels end their winter foraging along southern coasts and head inland and north to subarctic, alpine tundra and taiga (subarctic coniferous forests located south of the tundra) breeding grounds in both the Old and New Worlds. During migration it may be sighted across the entire continental U.S., using wetlands, dry, short grasslands, farmland (especially plowed fields), golf courses, parks, and rocky shores. It is often found with other shorebirds, and Whimbrels are the first to alert all of any danger they perceive, with loud squawks. The Whimbrel will roost in exposed sand banks, tops of mangrove trees, or in shallowly flooded clearings in mangroves that face the open sea. Inland they are seen around wetlands, grasslands, farms (especially plowed fields), golf courses and parks.

May - June

Reproduction:

Whimbrels breed around the world at high northern latitudes. On their subarctic breeding grounds male Whimbrels attract a female with repeated flight displays, starting low and circling high, then gliding down singing to attract a female. They are monogamous, nest in loose colonies, and are territorial of their nesting area. The female usually scrapes a nest near a small shrub or on a raised mound, and lines it with lichen, leaves, moss, or grass. She lays, on average, 4 eggs which are 58 mm/2.3 in. long, and olive-green to light brownish buff, blotched with olive/reddish brown. Both parents incubate the eggs for 24-28 days. The hatchlings are downy and precocial, leaving the nest to feed within 2 hours. Both parents tend and defend them. They will even attack humans that come too close.

July - October

Migration:

Adults leave the nesting grounds in July and head southward. The female leaves first, 3-4 weeks after the chicks hatch. The male stays with the chicks until they fledge at the age of 5-6 weeks. After the male parent departs, the young of the year typically follow about a month later. The North American breeding population winters along the Pacific Coast from southern Oregon to the southern tip of South America.

November - February

Feeding:

Crabs are an important food during winter, and the shape of the Whimbrel’s long bill matches the curve of the crab’s burrow. Worms and mollusks are also taken by probing. If muddy, the item will be rinsed before ingestion. If large, it will be torn into small pieces. Locally, from 40 to 100 Whimbrels winter on Elkhorn Slough, while most are found along the coastline of the Monterey Peninsula and down to Big Sur.

Listing Status:

Whimbrels are one of the most wide-ranging shorebirds in the world, found at high northern latitudes around the world. However the U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan lists the Whimbrel as in significant decline. The 2005 Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds applies to the Whimbrel, and provides broad protection. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regards the Whimbrel as a species of high concern, due to the bird\'s declining population trends, small population size, and restricted breeding distribution. In the United States, the greatest threat to Whimbrels is the loss of suitable habitat. The degradation and destruction of coastal wetlands continues due to expanding commercial development. On average, coastal states have lost between 30% and 90% of their original wetlands. The Canadian Wildlife Service estimates the worldwide population at 797,000 and the North American population at 57,000. Hunting in the 19th century reduced their numbers, and although hunting is banned in North America, their numbers are still not back to historic levels. In winter, Whimbrels concentrate at key sites in South America, where they face threats from hunters, land developers, and pollution. Juvenile birds remain at these sites for up to two years. One study found that Whimbrels and their prey species on a northern Chilean beach suffered from high cadmium levels, presumably released by a local mining operation. High levels of cadmium lead to kidney damage and reproductive failure. Because the Whimbrel\'s wide range and migratory pathways span so many countries, groups like the Western Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve Network try to coordinate efforts to collect population data, protect habitat, and limit pollution.

Monitoring Trends:

In the MBNMS area it is a fairly common migrant in the winter. It is rare in the summer.
Click on an image below to view a larger version in the SIMoN Photo Library. You will also be able to view important information on each photo such as photographer, date, caption and more.
Ehrlich, P., D.S. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The Birders Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds. Simon & Schuster Inc., New York. 785 p.
NOAA. 1994. Beached marine birds and mammals of the North American West Coast: a revised guide to their identification. NOAA Sanctuaries and Reserves Division, U.S. Department of Commerce
Roberson, D. 2002. Monterey Birds 2nd edition. Monterey Peninsula Audubon Society, Carmel, CA. 536 p.
Sibley, D.A. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Bird. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 545 p.
WWW
Academic.ru. 200
http://dic.academic.ru/dic.nsf/enwiki/180141
Accessed 3/15/2009 for Whimbrel

WWW
Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds. 2005.
http://www.unep-aewa.org/documents/agreement_text/eng/pdf/aewa_agreement_text_annex3.pdf
Accessed 3/15/2009 for Whimbrel

WWW
Audubon Society.
http://www.audubon.org
Accessed 02/28/09 for Marbled Godwit
Accessed 04/13/09 for Heermann’s Gull
Accessed 03/15/2009 for Whimbrel
Accessed 06/20/2010 for Black Turnstone

WWW
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
All About Birds
http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/search
Accessed 05/17/2009 for Albatross
Accessed 01/15/2009 for Clark's Grebe
Accessed 01/20/2009 for Great Egret
Accessed 02/03/2009 for American White Pelican
Accessed 01/30/2009 for Pelagic Cormorant
Accessed 02/12/2009 for Black-necked Stilt
Accessed 02/28/2009 for Marbled Godwit
Accessed 03/15/2009 for Whimbrel
Accessed 04/11/2009 for Long-billed Curlew
Accessed 04/13/2009 for Heermann’s Gull
Accessed 09/10/2009 for Eared Grebe
Accessed 11/11/2009 for American Avocet
Accessed 01/26/2010 for Pigeon Guillemot
Accessed 12/15/2009 for Black-crowned Night Heron
Accessed 07/07/2009 for Pied-billed Grebe
Accessed 04/04/2010 for Osprey
Accessed 08/30/2010 for Ruddy Turnstone
Accessed 10/10/2010 for Pacific Loon
Accessed 10/15/2010 for Sooty Shearwater
Accessed 10/30/2010 for Surf Scoter
Accessed 12/04/2010 for Bufflehead
Accessed 02/01/2011 for American Coot
Accessed 02/20/2011 for Western Sandpiper
Accessed 03/04/2011 for Least Sandpiper.
Accessed for California Condor

WWW
eNature.com. Field Guides.
http://www.enature.com/fieldguides/eNature.com 2007
Accessed 01/30/2009 for Pelagic Cormorant
Accessed 02/03/09 for American White Pelican
Accessed 02/12/09 for Black-necked Stilt
Accessed 02/28/09 for Marbled Godwit
Accessed 03/15/09 for Whimbrel
Accessed 04/14/09 for Willet
Accessed 06/20/2010 for Black Turnstone
Accessed 12/15/2009 for Black-crowned Night Heron
Accessed 10/30/2010 for Surf Scoter

WWW
Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds. 2009.
http://www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/birdguide/name/w/whimbrel/index.asp?view=print
Accessed 3/15/2009 for Whimbrel

WWW
Seattle Audubon Society.
http://www.seattleaudubon.org/birdweb/
Accessed 01/30/2009 for Pelagic Cormorant
Accessed 02/28/2009 for Marbled Godwit
Accessed 04/13/2009 for Heermann’s Gull
Accessed 03/15/2009 for Whimbrel
Accessed 06/20/2010 for Black Turnstone
Accessed 12/15/2009 for Black-crowned Night Heron
Accessed 02/01/2011 for American Coot