Bird of the Month: Whimbrel

By Hugh Jennings

PC: Mick Thompson (Whimbrel)

PC: Mick Thompson (Whimbrel)

Scientific Name: Numenius phaeopus

Length 17.5 in

Wingspan 32 in

Weight 14 oz

AOU Band code WHIM

The Whimbrel (WHIM) is about 17.5” long with a wingspan of 32” and a weight of 14 oz. (390g). The genus name Numenius (new-MEAN-ih-us) is Latin from the Greek noumenios, of the new moon; curve of bill is likened to new crescent moon. The species name phaeopus (FEE-oh-pus) is from the Greek phaios, gray, and pous, foot, gray-foot. It was named Whimbrel in England from uttered note which sounded like whim. It is a member of the curlew family.

The Whimbrel is sturdy and sleek with pointed wings. It has a longer body and shorter bill than the Long-billed Curlew and is similar to the Marbled Godwit. It is grayish-brown overall. The bill is long and downcurved. It has two dark stripes on the crown and dark streak through the eye. Females are slightly larger. In flight the underwings are brown and the belly pale.

They are mainly a coastal species and are found on marshes, beaches, and rocky shores. It is the only North American curlew to regularly feed on rocky shores. They are often seen in flocks, but forage singly. It feeds more by picking, than probing, than Long-billed Curlew and godwits.

The Whimbrel breeds around the world on the arctic tundra and winters on all tropical coasts. It migrates along either coast and quite rare in the interior. They have been seen in every month of the year in the Northwest, but are common only during migration. A few winter on our coast and some spend the summer on the coast.

Whimbrels often feed on drying expanses of mud that are shunned by other shorebirds. Although the y have a long bill, they feed visually and pick prey from the surface of just beneath it as they move rapidly over a variety of surfaces. They eat insects, marine worms, crustaceans, mollusks, small crabs and, in the Arctic, berries. When feeding on crabs, it may break off legs and crush shell before swallowing the body of the crab.

The birds defend their feeding territories at low tide and then roost together in flocks at high tide. Early in the breeding season, the male performs a flight display over the nesting territory. It flies in large circles, alternately fluttering higher and gliding down, while giving whistling and bubbling song. Its voice is a loud repeated, whistlelike “whi whi whi whi whi” and many other calls.The nest is a depression in the tundra, heath, or bog. There usually four greenish olive eggs with marks. The incubation period by both sexes is 22-24 days and the young fledge 35-42 days later. Both parents look after the young, but the young feed themselves.