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Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) | by Brian Carruthers-Dublin-Eire
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Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus)

[group] Sandpipers and allies | [order] CHARADRIIFORMES | [family] Scolopacidae | [latin] Numenius phaeopus | [UK] Whimbrel | [FR] Courlis corlieu | [DE] Regen-Brachvogel | [ES] Zarapito Trinador | [NL] Regenwulp


spanwidth min.: 78 cm

spanwidth max.: 88 cm

size min.: 37 cm

size max.: 45 cm


incubation min.: 27 days

incubation max.: 28 days

fledging min.: 35 days

fledging max.: 28 days

broods 1

eggs min.: 3

eggs max.: 4


May Curlew, May Whaap, May Fowl, Half Curlew


Status: Passage migrant in autumn (August/September) and spring (April/May).


Conservation Concern: Green-listed in Ireland. The European population is considered to be Secure.


Identification: Similar in appearance to the Curlew, but slightly smaller. Whimbrel has a similar downcurved bill, but this is slightly shorter than that of the Curlew. When seen well, distinctive "striped" head pattern can be discerned - formed by a dark crown, with a pale streak through the centre, a pale supercillium and a dark eyestripe. The call is also one of the best ways of finding a flock of migrating Whimbrels passing overhead.


Similar Species: Curlew


Call: A rapid, monotone whistle - "whit-tit-tit-tit-tit-tit…", very unlike the call of a Curlew. Frequently heard as birds fly high overhead. Also occasionally a rapid bubbling song, quite similar to Curlew's.


Diet: Molluscs, crustaceans & polychaete worms.


Breeding: Although there have been a few sightings of birds in suitable habitat, there are no records of Whimbrel breeding in Ireland. Breeds almost continously in Arctic areas from Scandinavia across Siberia to Canada, Greenland and Iceland.


Wintering: A few Whimbrel winter in coastal areas, mainly along the south and east coast. The main wintering range extends from southern Spain along the west African coast to southern Africa.


Where to See: Mainly coastal sites during spring and autumn migration. Kilcoole in County Wicklow is a reliable site for seeing Whimbrels in spring.



Physical characteristics


A large, relatively short-legged shorebird with a long down-curved bill, striped head, brown speckled upperparts and light underparts with streaking on the neck and upper breast. The underwings are light. Sexes similar in plumage, but female larger on average. Similar to adult, but back with light spots, crown stripe less distinct, breast more buff, and with finer streaking on neck and chest.




Breeds in various tundra habitat, from wet lowlands to dry heath or wet taiga bogs that have scattered, stunted black spruce. In migration, frequents various coastal and inland habitats, including fields and beaches. Winters in tidal flats and shorelines, occasionally visiting inland habitats.


Other details


This wader inhabits boreal and arctic regions of Eurasia and North America. The populations of northern Europe, from Finland to the Urals, are wintering in West Africa. They are totalling 200000-400000 breeding pairs, and are increasing




It fattens up during the fall migration at coastal and terrestrial habitats such as heaths and oyster banks. During the winter, it forages in tidal flats, mangroves and a variety of other coastal habitats. This curlew has a broad diet but its main food is marine invertebrates. Crabs are a favorite prey of wintering birds. In the fall, when staging for migration in the Canadian Maritimes and coastal Maine, Whimbrels eat berries and even flowers during breeding season. Berries are pulled off a branch with the tips of the bill. The bird then flips its head back and swallows. Insects are eaten in the same way.




This species has an extremely large range, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the range size criterion (Extent of Occurrence 30% decline over ten years or three generations). The population size is extremely large, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population size criterion (10% in ten years or three generations, or with a specified population structure). For these reasons the species is evaluated as Least Concern. [conservation status from]




Breeds in various tundra habitat, from wet lowlands to dry heath. In migration, frequents various coastal and inland habitats, including fields and beaches. Breeding occurs May through July. Females usually lay four eggs in a depression they scraped out of the ground and lined with leaves. After 22-28 days of incubation, the eggs hatch. Young take about another month to fly.




Migratory. West Palearctic population winters mainly in Afrotropical region and on islands and coasts of western Indian Ocean. Very few winter in Europe (irregularly north to Denmark), and only sparingly from North Africa to Persian Gulf. Migrants not scarce in European coastal areas, especially around British Isles, but great majority probably pass overland on broad fronts, overflying large regions between relatively few staging areas. Especially important numbers halt in Hungary and interior of Low Countries (mainly Netherlands) in spring, but rather few in autumn when (so far as known) European passage (chiefly August-September) is without major roosting or feeding concentrations. Many summer in African wintering areas; probably all 1-year-olds do so. Otherwise, spring departure from Afrotropics begins in March, including long Saharan crossings. Early birds reach Europe in late March, though main passage in second half April and first 10 days of May; breeding grounds reoccupied in May, or June in northern Russia.




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Taken on April 7, 2016