A long-legged wader, closely related to the curlew, the Eurasian whimbrel, has small breeding populations established on the Scottish islands of Shetland and Orkney. Migrating whimbrels may be spotted along Britain’s coastlines as they undertake long-distance migration flights between Arctic tundra breeding grounds and wintering territories in Africa.
Whimbrel foraging in the river
Close up portrait of a Whimbrel
Eurasian Whimbrel wading amongst the rocks
Eurasian Whimbrel, Common Whimbrel
Family:Sandpipers, snipes and phalaropes
37cm to 47cm
75cm to 90cm
270g to 493g
Whimbrels are large wading birds, similar in shape and colouring to curlews. They have brown upper parts, and paler white underparts, with an all-over marbled appearance. A dark crown is divided by a lighter brown stripe, and they have a prominent dark eye stripe.
Whimbrels have a distinctive white V-shaped marking on their rump, which is visible in flight. Their long dark grey bill curves downwards near the tip, and their grey-blue legs are long and slender.
Close up of a Eurasian whimbrel
Females and male whimbrels are alike in markings and colourings, but it may be possible to tell them apart at close range as the female is slightly larger and heavier.
Juvenile whimbrels are smaller in size than adults, and have slightly shorter bills. Their markings are more defined than those seen on adult birds.
Whimbrels are slightly smaller than their close relative, the curlew. Males and females are similar in size, with females slightly larger and heavier than their male counterparts.
Whimbrel taking off for flight
In flight, whimbrels make a distinctive monotone-pitch mellow call, which more often than not consists of exactly seven notes. In courtship or in defence of a nest site, a scream-like whistle is heard instead.
On their wetland breeding grounds, whimbrels feed mainly on ground insects, snails and slugs, which they pick up with their bills. They also pick berries and flower buds from bushes.
During migration, whimbrels pass across coastal wetlands, and their diet changes to incorporate more crustaceans, shrimps and molluscs. They catch these by plunging their long curved bills into mudflats and probing beneath the surface of the wet mud.
Whimbrel chicks leave the nest shortly after being born and are not fed by parents at all. Instead, they quickly master the art of foraging for themselves, beginning with ripening berries and flying insects.
Whimbrel feeding on a small crab
While breeding and raising young, whimbrels can be found on Arctic tundras, open moorlands, and uplands. Areas of dense vegetation are avoided, while shrubby areas and mossy lowlands offer suitable nesting and foraging spots.
Migration takes place along coastal wetlands, with whimbrels stopping off at various staging points along the shorelines of Britain to break their onward migration to Africa and beyond.
Mudflats, marshes and coastal wetlands provide whimbrels with foraging grounds for the energy-rich molluscs and crustaceans that help to power their long flights to their winter territories.
Typical winter habitats include tidal flats, coastal meadows, swamps, estuaries and sandy beaches.
Eurasian whimbrels breed in the Arctic circle, from Greenland and Iceland, across the Faroe Islands, Ireland, northern Scotland, and northern Norway, as far east as Siberia.
Migration takes Eurasian whimbrels south into Africa and into Asia, with wintering grounds extending around the coast of West Africa, East Africa, South Asia and into Australasia.
Whimbrel wading through its natural habitat
Whimbrels live on moorlands and uplands in northern Scotland, with Shetland hosting the majority of the UK’s breeding population of up to 470 pairs in the 1990s. Orkney, the Outer Hebrides and the extreme north of the Scottish mainland have also recorded established breeding grounds.
Ringing data shows us the winter destinations of whimbrels that breed in the extreme northern Scottish islands, and further north, in Iceland, with many of these birds spending winters in West Africa, with wintering grounds extending from Mauritania in the north to Benin and Togo in the south.
While an estimated 310 whimbrel pairs breed in the British Isles each year, only a small handful remain in the country all year round – only around 41 birds.
In 2009, migrating whimbrels were spotted in passage at 144 different sites, with a maximum of 1,551 whimbrels spotted at the peak migration period.
With these numbers, sightings are fairly rare, but in the correct environments, it would not be an extraordinary event.
Whimbrels are limited to the northernmost extremes of Scotland’s offshore islands, with populations present on moorlands in Shetland, Orkney and the far north of the Scottish mainland.
During migration passage in spring and autumn, whimbrels pass along the coastlines all around the British Isles, and sightings in coastal wetlands are reported fairly regularly.
Close up of a Whimbrel in flight
A typical lifespan for a whimbrel is around 11 years, with breeding for the first time at two years. From ringing data, the oldest recorded whimbrel reached 24 years and 1 month.
Foxes and birds of prey are the leading predators of whimbrels. They are quite elusive birds, and are quite skilled at avoiding being preyed on.
Whimbrels are listed as a Schedule 1 species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981, which gives them protection against being knowingly killed, captured or injured, and protects any active nest sites and young from being disturbed.
Whimbrels are a red list bird under the Birds for Conservation Concern guidance in the UK, meaning that their numbers have fallen to a worrying level.
Across Europe, the species is considered of least concern, although numbers have experienced a decline in recent decades, partly due to hunting along their migration routes.
A flock of Whimbrel
Whimbrels build nests on the ground, making a shallow scrape, which is then lined by the female with grass, mosses and lichen.
Tundras and moorland landscapes provide a suitable habitat for nesting whimbrels, with nests positioned in relatively open settings, rather than being concealed in any vegetation.
Whimbrels’ eggs are pale green to olive green in colour and are streaked with brown markings.
Eggs, which measure 58 mm by 41 mm, are then incubated by both males and females for 24 to 28 days, with the female brooding for the majority of the time.
A typical clutch contains between 3 and 5 eggs, and usually, one single brood is raised each season.
Whimbrels are monogamous during the breeding season, and for many pairs, this bond continues in subsequent years.
It’s common for migrating whimbrels to return to a breeding ground they have successfully used in the past, and frequent reports exist of the same pairs reuniting to raise young together year after year.
A pair of Eurasian Whimbrel, perched on a rock
A fair amount of aggressive behaviour can be observed in breeding whimbrels, which fiercely defend their young and nest site against intruders.
When establishing a territory, clashes occur between competing males, and whimbrels have been observed to display aggressive behaviour towards humans that approach too closely.
Outside of the breeding season, whimbrels associate in large numbers on wetland shores to forage at low tide, and roost together at high tide.
Large flocks of whimbrels roost together communally outside of the breeding season, gathering at dusk on offshore islands, dunes, and marshes.
Eurasian whimbrels are a migratory species, spending breeding and non-breeding seasons a significant distance apart.
Winters are spent in southern Europe and northern Africa, and migration occurs in spring and autumn, with whimbrels arriving on their breeding grounds as far north as the Arctic Circle from March to April.
A flock of Whimbrel in flight
Whimbrels have a reputation as being strong fliers, displaying great endurance during their long-distance migrations.
One highly accomplished whimbrel, nicknamed Winnie, was tracked, completing a 5,000 km (3200 mi) distance in only 146 hours, racking up a speed of almost 22 miles per hour.
Spotted redshanks have a distinctive black spotted summer plumage that UK residents are unlikely to see in birds on British shores, as the species is only a rare winter visitor or spotted in migration passage. Several hundred spotted redshanks make brief stopovers on British coastal wetlands each year, en-route to and from breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle.
Highly camouflaged and elusive, the jack snipe is a small wading bird that spends winters on mudflats and freshwater wetlands across Britain. Smaller and less common than the UK’s other native snipe, the common snipe, jack snipes are harder to spot due to their tendency to crouch low and remain hidden among reeds.
Green sandpipers are stocky shorebirds similar to the common sandpiper. They spend winters at inland freshwater wetlands in southern Europe and northern and central Africa after raising their young in swampy forests and wet woodland landscapes across northern Europe.
The Dunlin is a small wading bird from the sandpiper family Scolopacidae. Dunlins breed across North America and northern Europe, and Asia and are one of the most widely distributed wading birds, with ten subspecies.
Identified as being from a group of birds known as Waders, within North America they are generally referred to as Shorebirds. This monotypic species, a long distance migrant, is considered to have an Amber Conservation Status otherwise known as Near Threatened.
The largest European wading bird, the Eurasian curlew is easy to identify with its elongated bow-shaped bill and spindly legs. In winter groups of curlews known as ‘curfews’ forage together in coastal wetlands, and up to 66,000 pairs breed in the UK and are resident all year round.
Belonging to a group of birds generally called waders or shorebirds, the common sandpiper prefers freshwater habitats as opposed to saltwater locations.
An impressive, proud looking wader with particularly fine summer plumage which migrates south from its northern breeding grounds from July to October, returning for the summer from late February through April.
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