Daily Bird: Whimbrel
July 29, 2020
Edited from a version published in 2018.
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by Greg Hanisek
This very large shorebird presents a spectacular contrast to the smaller sandpipers and plovers that it towers over on a sandbar or mudflat.
Like most shorebirds other than the anomalous woodcocks and snipes, the Whimbrel favors open shores such as gravel and sand beaches and to a lesser extent mudflats. It also feeds and rests on the short grass portions of salt marshes.
Whimbrels and other shorebirds stop in Connecticut in July to feed and rest on their way south, and all of Connecticut’s coastal shorebird habitat attracts them.
A half-dozen were spotted on the Norwalk Islands 10 days ago, and there was one at Sandy Point in West Haven yesterday. For a number of days, one and sometimes two have been seen at the Coastal Center at Milford Point.
Milford Point is an especially favorable place to look for them because of the way high tides concentrate shorebirds in a relatively small open area. When the tide is low they spread out more widely. But when they’re in a small area, it’s easy to disturb them if you walk too close. So watch from afar and let the birds eat and rest undisturbed.
When To Find Them: Because they nest in the high Arctic, Whimbrels are seen in Connecticut strictly as migrants. They pass through in both spring and fall and readily stop to rest and feed.
Southbound, they’re part of the mid-summer shorebird migration. They can show up any time in July, although mid-July is the typical starting point. Prime time is mid-July to mid-September, with a few seen into October.
Whimbrels are seldom numerous, usually occurring as singles or in numbers countable on one hand. However, in 2017 and 2018, spring migration produced unusual passage flocks of 30 – 40 birds.
What They Look Like: Size makes them conspicuous. Only the godwits match them in stature, and both of our North American species are rare to uncommon in comparison to Whimbrels. They’re brownish overall with a typically cryptic shorebird feather pattern. There’s a video on this page that shows them in comparison to typical “peep” shorebirds.
Their outstanding feature is the large decurved bill unmatched by any regularly occurring species. The Long-billed Curlew of the American West has only been recorded once in Connecticut, and so has the Eurasian subspecies of Whimbrel, which has a conspicuous wedge of white up its rump and lower black.
Conservation Status: Major efforts involve hemispheric-level conservation, especially efforts to protect wintering and staging areas in South America. As a note of interest, Birds of the World Online includes speculation that Whimbrels’ tendency to migrate in smaller flocks than other shorebirds helped mitigate population loss during the market-hunting of the 1800s.
Greg Hanisek is editor of The Connecticut Warbler, the journal of the Connecticut Ornithological Association.