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Whimbrel
Numenius phaeopus
Order
CHARADRIIFORMES
– Family
SCOLOPACIDAE
Authors: Skeel, Margaret A., and Elizabeth P. Mallory

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Introduction

Figure 1. Distribution of the Whimbrel in North and Middle America.

The Whimbrel, a large shorebird, is the most wide-ranging of the curlew species and the only one that nests across both the Nearctic and Palearctic. Four subspecies breed in disjunct populations across boreal, subarctic, and low arctic areas. The North American race, N. p. hudsonicus, comprises two disjunct breeding populations, primarily in subarctic tundra and alpine areas.

The Whimbrel nests in loose aggregations in open habitats that vary from wet lowlands to dry uplands. This long-lived wader is monogamous and territorial, with mates sharing incubation of four eggs. Although the species is conspicuous during the nesting season, its breeding biology has been examined in only two areas in North America, northern Manitoba and western Alaska (Skeel 1976a, McCaffery 1989), and in only a few areas in Europe. Nesting success and density vary with habitat; little is known of fledging success. In feeding, the Whimbrel takes advantage of the short, intense flush of insects in the arctic summer as well as berries left from the previous growing season.

On migration the Whimbrel is primarily coastal and oceanic, although some individuals fly overland. Some coastal migrants undergo a nonstop Atlantic flight of up to 4,000 km from southern Canada or New England to South America. Coastal staging areas most critical to migrant Whimbrels have not yet been identified, although flocks of up to 1,000 birds have been documented. Recent coastal surveys in Mexico and South America have identified major wintering areas. There, and on migration, birds maintain feeding territories, where they prey primarily on marine invertebrates (especially crabs), using their long, decurved bill. Bill decurvature matches the burrow curve of the fiddler crabs (Uca spp.) in Panama.

The genus name, Numenius, is Greek for “new moon” (for the crescent shape of the bill); the species name, phaeopus, means “dark countenance”; and the subspecific name is for Hudson Bay.