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The Whimbrel { Birds of Europe}

Updated on August 1, 2015


Taken in Australia North Queensland.
Taken in Australia North Queensland. | Source


Whimbrel's belong to the order of birds known as the Charadriiformes and the family Scolopacidae within that order. The genus name of Numenius derives from the Greek neos=new+ mense =moon { New Moon} alluding to the crescent shaped bill,and the specific name of phaeopus is again from the Greek phaios=Dusky+pous =foot.

The bird id on the Red List of conservation concern in the UK {losses of more than 50% or more in the last fifty years or so},but more so due to recent declines after being moved up from the Amber list of conservation concern where it was between 2002-2007. There are an estimated 500 pairs in summer. In Ireland it is Green listed { No current concerns} and in Europe it is regarded as being secure {no current concerns}. {Source BTO,-2014}

The European population is estimated at between 154,000 and 333,000 Pairs. The European populations vary from country to country here are some examples. Belarus the estimated population is between 100-170 breeding pairs {BP}, Greenland 50-100 BP. Estonia 400-500 BP, Finland 30,000-50,000 BP, Iceland 100,000-250,000 BP, Latvia 60-100 BP. Norway, 10,000-20,000 BP, Russia 6,000-30,000 BP, Sweden 9,000-10,000 .BP { Source Birdlife International { 2014}.

Whimbrel American sub species hudsonicus.

Taken at Acapulco Beach.
Taken at Acapulco Beach. | Source

What are the Scolopidae ?

Scolopidae to which family our subject belongs is composed of over 20 genera and this large family is often divided into two groups of similar birds as for example,

The Curlews and Whimbrels of the Genus Numenius { eight species}.

Upland Sandpiper of the Genus Bartramia

Godwits of the genus Limosa {Four species}

Dowithchers of the genus Limnodromus {three species}

Snipes and Woodcock's of the genera Coenocorypha, Lymnocryptes, Gallingo and Scolopax { Nearly thirtyspecies}

Phaloropes of the genus Phaloropus { Three species}

Shanks and tattylers-sixteen species}

Polynesian Sandpipers of the genus Prosobunia {one species}

Callidris and Turnstones { Approximately 25 species}

Our subject has been placed in the genus Numenius which consists of eight species of birds characterized by their long slender down curved bills and mottled brown plumage and includes the Curlews**

They usually feed by probing soft mud for invertebrates and by picking small crabs and similar prey from the surface. They are also known to eat berries. In the breeding season or inland on migration its diet consists of adult insects and their larvae,spiders,millipedes,earthworms,snails slugs and seeds and berries.

In America they are represented by the species such as Numenius phaeopus ssp hudsonicus. In North America our subject has undergone a large and significant decrease over the last forty years or so of an estimated 84.7% equating to a 37.5% decline per decade { Data Breeding Bird Survey and/or Christmas Bird count,Butcher and Niven -2007}. However, these surveys cover less than 50% of the species range in North America.

As always we commence with a description of the subject under review.

Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland. Richard Crossley.
Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland. Richard Crossley. | Source

Description of Numenius phaeopus

The adult in summer plumage has a downward curved bill three to three and a half inches long. It is nearly black at the tip passing into a dirty yellow colour at the base. The iris is umber.

The upper parts are dark brown with paler margins to the feathers, on the head neck,wing coverts and tertiaries especially. The crown sooty with a central whitish line from bill to nape.The primaries have whitish shafts and a white saw-tooth pattern on the inner webs. Secondaries are marked in a like manner on both webs.

The lower back and rump white, with some longitudinal dark brown streaks usually concealed under the feathers of the lower back,but clearly visible on the rump. The tail and upper tail coverts are grey brown,barred with darker brown. there is a white eye-brow from bill to nape,finely striated with brown. The under parts are white. The chest and sides of the body thickly spotted with brown, the spots pointed at the lower end.

The legs and feet are lead coloured. They measure 16-17 inches. The female is a little larger especially the bill. Adults in winter are paler below,and the heavy spots on the chest and neck have shrunk to more linear stripes.

Whimbrels' have been described as a smaller edition of the Curlew**,from which it can be told by a markedly quicker flight more rapid wing beats give it a less lumbering gull-like flight,distinctive call { A twittering trill,quite different from the Curlew's normal bubbling call},and at close range by the two dark and one pale streak on the head.

To distinguish this species from the Curlew see the BTO video below.

** This species has already been reviewed in this series.

Courtesy of the British Trust for Ornithology. Standard You tube License.

Whimbrrel in flight

Taken in Iceland
Taken in Iceland | Source

General and Historical information

In the UK it is a passage migrant to many coastal areas in spring and autumn, on its way to and from its wintering grounds in South Africa. It is thought that the Shetland and Orkney breeding populations has been slowly increasing. There is an estimated 30 birds that winter in the UK.

The note of the Whimbrel is somewhat similar to the breeding note of the Curlew and consists of a high clear,short whistle,repeated seven or eight times in a descending scale of semitones or rather less. from this note it was often alluded to as the 'Titteral' in many coastal regions.

They are less marine creatures than the Curlew though so seldom found away from the coast,they tend to live more on land snails and worms. They are often recorded at newly ploughed fields near the sea as well as well as grass fields. They do of course feed on marine creatures but according to records ' Not to the extent as to give their flesh the rank fishy taste,which the Curlew's get'.

They are wary birds, but they are not as sharp sighted and vigilant as the Curlew's are, nor do they alarm the whole neighbourhood to the same extent. According to Morris 'A History of British Birds { 1898}----" the course of migration is northwards for the breeding season,about the month of May, and southwards 'au retour' in the autumn,in July and August; the older birds in the former month,and the young birds in the latter. The flocks advance at a considerable height in the air,and in the air,and in the form of the letter V reversed"

The Whimbrel haunts are some desolate districts,open moors,and barren tracts,especially those in which watering places occur during the summer months. Another archaic ornithologist notes that more than four or five are rarely seen together,and they are probably the brood of the preceding year. They are rather shy in their habits,and a few of the number are posted as sentinels twenty or thirty yards from the main body,and on notice of the approach of any danger given by these, the whole number are in an instant on the wing. Young birds are sometimes met with that are more unwary,' Before rain they are noisy and restless"

Generally in the UK the distribution is such that the further north you go the number of Whimbrels increase and the number of Curlews diminish. Another eminent writer of former times conveys his notes on the species----

" Not only is the Whimbrel the only bird among our Scolopacidae of regular double passage, but it differs from all other species of the family in the much fewer numbers appearing during the autumnal than the Spring migration. Its course of flight too, both in spring and autumn differs from that of its congeners."

According to Professor Newton " It is very common and the most characteristic bird of Iceland. It arrives at the end of April,breeds on the moors and departs by the middle of September"

A friend of dresser describes the arrival on Iona {Scotland} " When the winter's storms have at last done roaring,and the sea has subsided into a peaceful calm, when the air is genial,and the sky is blue,then the unusual cry of the Whimbrel announces that summer is nigh. The cry is heard as the flocks are flying to and fro high in the air,before alighting on the sandy grass-covered levels which skirt a considerable portions of the shores of Iona and are at this time of the year enamelled with Wild Hyacinths, Purple orchis and other wild flowers.

" A flock of some fifty of these long-legged birds,scattered over the bright green turf forms a very alluring sight,and their comparative heedlessness makes them an easy prey to one accustomed to circumvent the timid and cunning Curlew. They do not touch here on their autumnal migration"


Taken at Lonsoraefi Iceland.
Taken at Lonsoraefi Iceland. | Source

Egg of the Whimbrel


Whimbrel on the shore line

Taken in Ecuador transferred to Commons by BigrTex
Taken in Ecuador transferred to Commons by BigrTex | Source

Nest and eggs

The nest of this species is generally a hollow on a hummock or mound,usually a perfectly bare one. The nest can scarcely be said to be lined, but contains a few scraps of grass. On the moors the scrape will be made among the heather.

The female will deposit four eggs,smaller but very similar to those of the Curlew, but as a rule more boldly marked with brown. The ground colour has a beautiful orange tinge.

Butler { !898}, relates of finding the nest of the Whimbrel--" I found a nest with only three eggs incubated { A very unusual number} on a tussock in a marsh and close beside the nest lay a heap of small rounded pebbles,as big as sweet peas, which had evidently been recently brought by the parents from a riverside nearly a mile away,necessitating a good many journeys. Unless these were for the young birds, when born, to swallow with their food,as an aid to digestion, I am at a loss to explain their presence. Nearly all the eggs of this species seem to hatch out,barring accidents. I mean one seldom finds addled eggs in the nests,as is not uncommonly the case with Curlews".

Both sexes incubate the eggs for a period of about twenty seven or twenty eight days. They are very courageous at the nest, except in the case of man. There are accounts of Whimbrels thrashing a prowling Raven and driving it away. They will also drive out Skua's and Black-headed gulls.However, valiant the birds may be they do loose eggs through these marauding predators,when their attention is focused on driving off one of them,another rascal will creep in and take the spoils. When they hatch out the chicks are capable of running around in a very short time. The young birds that survive the predators will fledge in about thirty five to forty days.

Courtesy of andysj531.. Standard You Tube License. This brilliant video shows how well camouflaged the young chicks are.

Young birds.

The young in down are buffy white above and below with two strong dark lines along the crown and irregular black markings and mottling on the back. Their bills are short,not more than an inch and a half to two inches in length. It will become longer and more curved as maturity advances.

The young birds in Autumn have always a dusky appearance and some traces of buff on the underparts. Some times down remains for a time on the head and neck, the back is distinctly spotted with two shades of cream-buff and ruddy buff.

Whimbrel in grassland

Taken in South Africa. Uploaded to Commons by Delusion23
Taken in South Africa. Uploaded to Commons by Delusion23 | Source


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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Deb, run off from land where they breed is having an effect ,but also seashore and estuaries were becoming polluted,however, many have now be cleaned up in the UK. Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      5 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Curlews and whimbrels are such wonderful birds. I believe that water runoff that includes pesticides has caused some of the demise of these beautiful birds.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi thank you,glad you enjoyed. Best wishes to you.

    • favored profile image

      Fay Favored 

      5 years ago from USA

      These are really different and so is their sound. I've never seen one so the videos and photos were lovely to view.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hello Devika thank you for your usual kind and encouraging comments which are always appreciated very much. Thank you too, for all your votes, my friend. Best wishes to you..


      Hi jandee nice to see you here your kind comments are also much appreciated.Thank you. Best wishes to you.

    • jandee profile image


      5 years ago from Liverpool.U.K

      Hello DAL,

      sorry for being a stranger ! I love your birds here,so beautiful,you put a lot of work in presenting them,lovely.

      best from jandee...

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      5 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Great writing from you. Birds are such beautiful creatures. You always share in detail. Though most unusual about the features of this bird.Voted up, interesting, useful, and beautiful.


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