Whimbrel

Numenius phaeopus (Linnaeus, 1758)

Order: Charadriiformes

Family: Scolopacidae

New Zealand status: Native

Conservation status: Migrant

Other names: Asiatic whimbrel, American whimbrel

Geographical variation: Two races recognised as occurring in New Zealand: Asiatic whimbrel  N.p. variegatus and American whimbrel  N.p. hudsonicus. American whimbrel is probably best treated as a separate species from phaeopus (Sangster et al. 2011).

Whimbrel. Adult. Ngunguru, April 2017. Image © Scott Brooks (ourspot) by Scott Brooks

Whimbrel. Adult. Ngunguru, April 2017. Image © Scott Brooks (ourspot) by Scott Brooks

Whimbrels are large shorebirds which migrate to New Zealand from Arctic breeding grounds in small numbers. Most records are during the summer but a few birds occasionally overwinter. In New Zealand they typically associate with bar-tailed godwits, from which they differ in being darker, having a striped head and a strongly down-curved bill.

Identification

Whimbrels are somewhat larger than bar-tailed godwits and recognisable by their down-curved bill and pale stripe down the centre of crown. They are mottled dark brown above, pale below, with much brown streaking on the throat and breast. The head is conspicuously striped, with a pale eyebrow stripe separating the dark eye-stripe and side-crown, and another pale stripe down the centre of the crown. The rump and back pattern is very variable, ranging from largely white with some brown mottling, to heavily streaked brown appearing almost all dark at a distance. Most (possibly all) New Zealand birds are of the Asiatic form, and typically have a pale blaze up the back visible in flight. However, separation of Asiatic and American forms on rump pattern is unreliable as some Siberian birds have completely dark rumps, and it is uncertain whether any American whimbrels occur, or have ever occurred, in New Zealand. The underwing pattern of any ‘dark-rumped’ whimbrel should be checked; both forms have underwngs heavily barred with brown, but American birds have a cinnamon-buff toned underwing (similar to bristle-thighed curlew) while Asiatic birds have a more greyish tone.

Voice: a distinctive seven note whistle: ti-ti-ti-ti-ti-ti-ti.

Similar species: eastern curlew is larger with proportionately much longer bill and no crown stripe. Little whimbrel has crown stripe but bill is finer and only slightly down curved. Bristle-thighed curlew is similar in size and structure but has overall cinnamon-buff colouration, a plain (unbarred) orange-buff rump, and a very different call.

Distribution and habitat

Whimbrels may occur on estuaries throughout New Zealand, but most records are from the northern half of the North Island and Farewell Spit.

Population

About 70 whimbrels occur in New Zealand annually. The East Asian-Australasian Flyway population is estimated at 55,000. Numbers are thought to be declining. Whimbrels have been recorded as vagrant at the Kermadec and Chatham Islands.

Threats and conservation

About 50% of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway whimbrel population stages in the Yellow Sea on northward migration – an area under severe threat from reclamation and pollution.

Breeding

Whimbrels breed on Arctic tundra across Eurasia and North America. A clutch of 4 eggs is laid in a shallow scrape lined with small bits of vegetation.

Behaviour and ecology

In New Zealand, whimbrels occur singly or in small flocks on estuaries, often associating with bar-tailed godwits.

Food

In the non-breeding season whimbrels feed on a wide range of estuarine invertebrates including worms but particularly crabs. They also take small fish.

Weblinks  

http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=3009

http://www.environment.gov.au/cgi-bin/sprat/public/publicspecies.pl?taxon_id=849

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whimbrel

References

Barter, M. 2002. Shorebirds of the Yellow Sea: importance, threats and conservation status. Wetlands International Global Series 9. Downloadable at: http://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/migratory/publications/yellow-sea/index.html

del Hoyo, J.; Elliott, A.; Sargatal, J. (eds). 1996. Handbook of birds of the world. Vol. 3, hoatzin to auks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

Heather, B.D.; Robertson, H.A. 1996. The field guide to the birds of New Zealand. Viking, Auckland.

Higgins, P.J.; Davies, S.J.J.F. (eds) 1996. Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic birds. Vol. 3, snipe to pigeons. Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

MacKinnon, J., Verkuil, Y.I., Murray, N. 2012. IUCN situation analysis on East and Southeast Asian intertidal habitats, with particular reference to the Yellow Sea (including the Bohai Sea). Occasional Paper of the IUCN Species Survival Commission No. 47. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK. 70 p. Downloadable at: www.iucn.org/asiancoastalwetlands

Medway, D.G. 2010. Charadriiformes (waders). Pp. 191-223. In: Checklist Committee (OSNZ) 2010. Checklist of the birds of New Zealand, Norfolk and Macquarie Islands, and the Ross Dependency, Antarctica (4th edn). Ornithological Society of New Zealand & Te Papa Press, Wellington.

Sangster, G.; Collinson, J..; Crochet, P-A.; Knox, A.G.; Parkin, D.T.; Svensson, L.; Votier, S.C. 2011. Taxonomic recommendations for British birds: seventh report. Ibis 153: 883-892.

Southey, I. 2009. Numbers of waders in New Zealand 1994-2003. DOC Research & Development Series 308. Department of Conservation; Wellington. 70 p. http://www.doc.govt.nz/upload/documents/science-and-technical/drds308entire.pdf

Tomkovich, P.S. 2008. A new subspecies of the whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) from central Siberia. Zooloičeski Žurnal 87: 1092-1099 [in Russian]

Wetlands International (// 2012). Waterbird population estimates. Retrieved from wpe.wetlands.org on//  18 Jul 2012

Zink, R.M.; Rohwer S.; Andreev, A.V.; Dittmann, D.L. 1995. Trans-Beringia comparisons of mitochondrial DNA differentiation in birds. Condor 97: 639-649.

Recommended citation

Melville, D.S. 2013. Whimbrel. In Miskelly, C.M. (ed.) New Zealand Birds Online. www.nzbirdsonline.org.nz

Whimbrel

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Asiatic whimbrel

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American whimbrel

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