For the Birds Radio Program: Whimbrel

Original Air Date: June 28, 1989

If you’ve never heard of a Whimbrel, find out what you’ve been missing on today’s “For the Birds.”

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(Recording of a Whimbrel)

A couple of weeks ago I received a postcard from Cheryl Briggs of Grand Marais, Minnesota, telling me of a Whimbrel that stopped over in an old cow pasture where she lives. It courteously stuck around for about 15 minutes, giving her ample opportunity to study it through binoculars. The sighting was made the first week in June, which is normal for this species. Whimbrels winter throughout the coastal southern United States down to central South America, and also along the coasts of central and southern Africa, southern Asia, and Australia. Japanese birdwatchers look for them in the months we call winter. Many non-breeding birds remain on these wintering grounds all year. But like many shorebirds, Whimbrels breed only in the far north—in northernmost Canada and Alaska, and in Greenland, Scandinavia and Siberia.

This exotic shorebird is fairly large, streaked brown, gray, and white, with distinctive head stripes and an impressive bill—long and downwardly curved. It nests on the ground in northern sedge meadows, bogs, tundra, and heaths from May through July, and then heads down to the southern coasts in July. We Northlanders see Whimbrels only on migration—most often in spring. Usually we find them in small flocks of 5-25 birds, but occasional sightings are made of flocks of 200-300 birds. During the winter these birds concentrate in coastal habitats, where they feed on crabs and other small invertebrates. They also visit pastures, mowed parks, golf courses, and other grassy habitats, where they pick at worms, slugs, and other invertebrates. During spring migration we generally find them in these grassy places, as Cheryl Briggs did, although Whimbrels also occasionally turn up on beaches. They ‘re much harder to find during fall migration, when their diet includes more berries than invertebrates—most Northland records in autumn are from Duluth and along Minnesota’s north shore. The only records of Whimbrels in Wisconsin’s Ashland, Bayfield, and Douglas Counties are in May and June, although there are several records of them in August in central Wisconsin.

Whimbrels are monogamous, having long-term pair bonds and possibly mating for life. Like many larger birds, they achieve adult size their first summer, but don’t become sexually mature for 2 or 3 years. They weigh about a pound, with females larger than males. Both parents incubate the four eggs for about four weeks, and then both care for the precocial babies together for 5 or 6 weeks. Adults migrate at least a week before their young, yet the migratory instinct is so perfected that the babies know exactly when and where to go. Whimbrels fly in V-shaped flocks, making their distinctive call which gave them their name.

(Recording of a Whimbrel)

Like many of the migrants that pass through the Northland but don’t spend the summer here, Whimbrels are a bird most people never see or think about. But as anyone who has ever seen one knows, the Northland is richer for their passage through here, and our lives are richer for having seen one.

(Recording of a Whimbrel)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”