One Tough Bird: World Traveler, Super-Athlete, Survivor -August 2019

by: Virginia Andrews

It’s August on Nantucket, and as the tide falls, the emerging flats are filled with shorebirds of every type, both large and small. But even among other long-distance migrants one stands out: the Whimbrel.

As birds go, they are among the world’s top super-athletes, avian marathoners making a twice-yearly journey from Arctic tundra to as far south as Tierra del Fuego.

Photo by Brad Winn

Their plumage speaks to camouflage: brown above, light below, with some barring that makes them blend in among marsh or upland grasses. They are large, long-legged birds, tall, with a wingspan of over 30 inches. Size aside, they look like many other shorebirds. But a long, downcurving bill instantly identifies them as one of the curlews. This angled mandible makes them quickly recognizable, even at a distance. Cautious, as they stalk their prey on a marsh or sandy flat, Whimbrel have a stately yet unassuming presence.

They look, stop, pick or lunge, seizing their food. Alarmed, they cry out and leap into flight, powerful steady wingbeats speaking to their abilities in the air.

They were once abundant. In 1833 a flock of 1,500 birds was recorded. But after the 1870s the largest flock ever seen numbered only 100. Known back then as the Hudsonian Curlew, Whimbrel were among the many shorebirds to suffer under the hail of lead known as the market-gunning era, when commercial hunters took a tremendous toll.

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