Numenius phaeopus

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

Whimbrel foraging in the river

Close up portrait of a Whimbrel

Close up portrait of a Whimbrel

Eurasian Whimbrel wading amongst the rocks

Eurasian Whimbrel wading amongst the rocks

Appearance & Identification

What do Whimbrels look like?

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

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.

How big are Whimbrels?

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.

  • Length: 37 cm to 47cm (15 in to 19 in)
  • Wingspan: 75 cm to 90 cm (30 in to 35 in)
  • Weight: 270 g to 493 g (9.5 oz to 17.4 oz)
Whimbrel taking off for flight

Whimbrel taking off for flight

Calls & Sounds

What sound does a Whimbrel make?

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.


What do Whimbrels eat?

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.

What do Whimbrel chicks eat?

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

Whimbrel feeding on a small crab

Habitat & Distribution

What is the habitat of a Whimbrel?

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.

What is the range of a Whimbrel?

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

Whimbrel wading through its natural habitat

Where do Whimbrels live?

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.

How rare are Whimbrels?

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.

Where can you see Whimbrels in the UK?

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

Close up of a Whimbrel in flight

Lifespan & Predation

How long do Whimbrels live?

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.

What are the predators of Whimbrels?

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.

Are Whimbrels protected?

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.

Are Whimbrels endangered?

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

A flock of Whimbrel

Nesting & Breeding

Where do Whimbrels nest?

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.

What do Whimbrel eggs look like?

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.

Do Whimbrels mate for life?

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 pair of Eurasian Whimbrel, perched on a rock


Are Whimbrels aggressive?

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.

Where do Whimbrels sleep at night?

Large flocks of whimbrels roost together communally outside of the breeding season, gathering at dusk on offshore islands, dunes, and marshes.


Do Whimbrels migrate?

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

A flock of Whimbrel in flight


How fast do Whimbrels fly?

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.

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Quick Facts


Scientific name:

Numenius phaeopus

Other names:

Eurasian Whimbrel, Common Whimbrel


Sandpipers, snipes and phalaropes

Conservation status:




37cm to 47cm


75cm to 90cm


270g to 493g

Other birds in the Sandpipers, snipes and phalaropes family

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