Bird Lore: Whimbrel


whimbrel_1The Whimbrel is a medium-sized, wading shorebird with a long, curved bill. It passes through Edmonds each spring, in small numbers, on its way to its Arctic breeding grounds. It is usually seen in flight along the waterfront and, occasionally, on a beach. LeRoy recently found this Whimbrel at Marina Beach Park. The Whimbrel is the most widespread of the species in the curlew genus. It nests in the Arctic across Eurasia and North America and it winters on the coasts of six continents. Some birds migrate as much as 4,000 miles as they move from southern South America to the Arctic. Some winter along the California and southeastern U.S. coasts.

The Whimbrel can be found in small numbers throughout the year in Western Washington. Spring movement includes stopovers in agricultural fields. In recent years the grass fields at the north end of Camano Island have hosted several hundred Whimbrels foraging for insects in May. Fall flocks are somewhat smaller and are usually found in coastal marine areas such as at Ocean Shores, Tokeland, and Leadbetter Point.

Diet of the Whimbrel includes crustaceans, insects, and berries. On the coast this species eats many crabs and other crustaceans, marine worms and mollusks. The curve of its bill matches the shape of fiddler crab burrows. It reaches into the burrow, extracts the crab, washes it if it is muddy, and then breaks off the claws and legs before swallowing it. On its Arctic breeding grounds it feeds mostly on insects and then in late summer it feeds on berries such as crowberry and cranberry.

whimbrel_2The male’s courtship display involves flying in large circles over his nesting territory, alternately climbing and gliding down, while making a whistling and bubbling song. On the ground the pair may call together. The nest is on the ground, usually in a dry raised area near low-lying wet tundra. It is a shallow depression lined with grass, moss, and lichen bits. The 3-4 eggs are incubated by both sexes. The young leave the nest soon after hatching. While the parents tend them, the young feed themselves. They take their first flight at about 5-6 weeks of age.

The oldest known Whimbrel was 14 when it was recaptured and re-released in Manitoba. This shorebird’s population declined steeply in the 19th Century because of hunting for sport and food. Although its international conservation status is that of least concern, the North American population was on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List, which meant it was at risk of becoming threatened or endangered without conservation action. Threats include loss of coastal wetland habitat and environmental contamination such as cadmium wastes from mining in Chile. The Whimbrel is no longer on the Watch List of the just-released 2016 State of the Birds report, but it continues to have a somewhat high score for concern about its status.

You can hear the flight call of a Whimbrel here: The male’s courtship song can be heard here:

— By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

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