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Whimbrel vs Curlew

Updated on February 20, 2016

Are you seeing a curlew or a whimbrel?

Unless you see the two side by side, it's often hard to tell the them apart. Curlews and whimbrels are closely related and are in the sandpiper family. The long-billed curlew is the largest of all sandpipers and it is the most common curlew in the United States. In a remote part of northwestern Alaska, there is a species called a bristle-thighed curlew, but it is extremely uncommon and restricted to only two small areas in that state. They look very similar to whimbrels except that their bellies are mostly a pale white, have stronger wing markings, and have more pale-ness to the face.

Long-billed curlews and whimbrels both winter in the same parts of the United States: the southwestern and eastern coasts and the Gulf of Mexico. Some whimbrels will fly on to South America. But, they both spend the summer and raise their chicks in two very different environments. Whimbrels like to raise their chicks on the tundra, long-billed curlews like to raise their chicks inland in meadows, farms, and other open areas.

In this lens, I will talk about the differences and similarities of curlews and whimbrels, where to find them, and what they do. The photo for this module is of a long-billed curlew taken in San Diego.

All photos on this lens were taken by me except where otherwise noted and credited.

Long-billed Curlew

Long-billed Curlew
Long-billed Curlew

Here is a photo of a long-billed curlew. One of the things that distinguishes them from whimbrels is not only their size, but their call. Curlews often sound like they're calling "Curl-ee!" or "Curl-ew!". You can listen to a sample of their call Here Long billed curlews are mostly cinnamon or buffy brown and have less distinct head markings than the whimbrel.

Long-billed curlews eat a variety of food, but mostly marine invertebrates. They will pretty much eat anything they can catch as well, including small animals. Mostly, they like to eat crabs, insects, shrimp and worms.

*****There was a problem with that page of curlew sounds. It has been reported and is in the process of being fixed. There were curlew sounds on there when I first posted the link. In the meantime, click on the "identification" tab on that page to hear at least one correct long-billed curlew sound.

Another shot of a Long-billed curlew

Long-billed curlew
Long-billed curlew

This curlew was at Famosa Slough in San Diego. I think it might be a female and she was eagerly hunting for shellfish. At this place, there are a lot of fiddler crabs, but also different types of worms and possibly even mussels and clams, all of which the long-billed curlew is specially designed to capture and eat.

Books and items on shorebirds from Amazon

Here are some selections of shorebird-related items.

Shorebirds of North America: The Photographic Guide
Shorebirds of North America: The Photographic Guide

I love this book, lots of info and photos! This book has a lot of detailed information and photos of each type of shorebird in North America, including alternate pluamge.

 
The Shorebird Guide
The Shorebird Guide

An excellent guide to shorebirds. The authors of these books are well known for their expertise on bird identification. The book is divided between pictures and photos and text.

 

Whimbrel

Whimbrel
Whimbrel

Whimbrels make a more chattering call that can be heard here. They are also distinguished by their shorter, thicker bill and darker markings, especially on their heads. They are also noticeably smaller than the curlew, though it is hard to see unless the two species are side by side. Whimbrels tend to have less red in their coloration.

Whimbrels eat a similar diet to long-billed curlews, but they will also eat plant matter and berries. Plus, they eat more insects. They especially like to eat fiddler crabs and their bill is specially made to probe their burrows.

One interesting fact is that many Eurasian whimbrels have a white rump or back unlike North American whimbrels which have brown backs and rumps.

Another whimbrel

Whimbrel
Whimbrel

This one was at Famosa Slough in San Diego as well. I can't tell the gender of this whimbrel, but I understand that females tend to be larger than males and might have a slightly longer bill. Whimbrels love this area in San Diego because of all the fiddler crabs which seem to be their favorite food.

Wow!

Whimbrels have a migration route that can be thousands of miles long. They have been tracked flying through hurricanes.

Whimbrel by Brian Ralphs, Flickr
Whimbrel by Brian Ralphs, Flickr

Whimbrels in the Caribbean

Recently, two whimbrels with tracking devices made international news. Goshen and Machi fought their way through hurricane Irene only to be shot by hunters in the Caribbean when they flew in to rest in the area. They didn't even get to touch the ground before they were shot.

Hunting of shorebirds is a tradition on the islands of Guadalupe and Montserrat. Hunters wait out in marshes for birds that fly in from the storms. The hunting is basically unrestricted and unregulated, though the government does put certain species on a no-hunt list. But, such list is rarely enforced or paid any attention to by hunters. Fortunately, the hunters turned in the transmitters to researchers so we know how Machi and Goshen spent their last moments. The deaths of these two birds have shed a light on how much hunting pressure is on declining shorebird species passing through this area. The last physically confirmed Eskimo curlew, now presumed extinct, was shot on one of the islands in this area back in 1963.

Recently, some hunters have become more selective in what birds they hunt. When what was thought to be an Eskimo curlew (a bird similar to a whimbrel thought to be extinct) landed in a hunting swamp, the hunters who observed it let it go. However, it may have flown to another swamp where hunters are less selective about what they shoot. It may never be known what the strange bird really was.

Photo provided by Brian Ralphs via Creative Commons

You know you are seeing a curlew or a whimbrel if. . .

The following is a list of characteristics that long-billed curlews and whimberls have.

  • If you live the upper great plains or mountain states like Montana, Idaho, Nevada, the Dakotas, etc and it's summer. Then, you're probably seeing a long-billed curlew.
  • If you are in Alaska and it's summer, you're probably seeing a whimbrel.
  • If you're seeing a large shorebird, but it looks like it has a bill similar to a small ibis, you are probably seeing a whimbrel.
  • If you live inland, east of the Mississippi, you are most likely seeing a whimbrel, especially in the Great Lakes area.
  • If you're observing a pale, buffy bird with a light-colored belly that stands up fairly straight, then you are likely seeing a long-billed curlew.
  • If you see a bird with a long, curved bill and dark markings on it's head and overall medium-colored grayish-brown body, then you might be seeing a whimbrel.

Other birds by the name of Curlew or Whimbrel

In some countries, the words curlew and whimbrel are often used interchangeably. Here are some other species that go by those names throughout the world.

  • Eskimo Curlew--This once extremely abundant shorebird is now considered by most people to be extinct. They are very similar to their cousin, the whimbrel. They had one of the longest migrations on Earth, traveling from the arctic circle all the way down to the tip of South America. Unconfirmed sightings still continue to this day, though in very low numbers.
  • Little Curlew--said to be the closest cousin to the Eskimo curlew, though there have been no formal genetic studies on the two species. This species travels from Siberia to Australia and surrounding islands. Also known as the little whimbrel.
  • Stone curlew--a Eurasian bird that is nothing like any of the other curlews or whimbrels. Instead, they are more plover-like with shorter bills. They often winter in Africa and Australia and are also known as "Thick-knees" and are often nocturnal.
  • Eurasian curlew--Also known as Eurasian whimbrel and is very common throughout Europe and Asia. It is the third largest in the world after the long-billed curlew and Eastern curlew.
  • Slender-billed curlew--Very rare European bird, presumed to have less than 50 individuals alive, if even that. Often confused with Eurasian curlews whom it associates itself with.
  • Bristle-thigh curlew--Flies between Alaska and Hawaii on its annual migration. Similar to whimbrels in size and shape.
  • Eastern curlew--Similar looking to the long-billed curlew, it is the largest curlew in the world. Breeds in Siberia, winters in Australia and Indonesia.

Curlews and whimbrels on video

Here are several videos on curlews and whimbrels that one is most likely to see in North America.

The first two videos are of the long-billed curlew

The next two are on the Hudsonian whimbrel (the most commons subspecies of whimbrel in the Americas)

After that, there are two videos of the bristle-thighed curlew

And, finally, two videos of the rare visitor, the little curlew

More information on long-billed curlews and whimbrels

Check out these links for more information on long-billed curlews and whimbrels in North America

Which do you see more often?

Which bird do you see more often?

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      SteveKaye 4 years ago

      Thank you for publishing these articles about birds. They need all the help they can get.

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      I don't believe I have ever seen these birds in nature.

      They sure do have a long beck. Cute birds!

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