If you are exploring our California coast, or joining us this Coastal Cleanup Day, keep an eye out for one of the world’s most wide-ranging shorebirds, the whimbrel. This species of shorebird, one of eight curlew species, can easily be identified by its long, decurved bill, colored with a bit of orange at the base. Additionally, the whimbrel’s head is patterned with stripes of buff and dark brown, and it sports a buff colored underbelly, which helps identify it from other Eurasian subspecies of whimbrel.
Whimbrels rely on their thirty-two inch wingspan to carry them far distances. Surprisingly, some whimbrels migrate up to 2,500 miles from Canada all the way down to South America! The west coast of the United States makes a great wintering habitat for the whimbrel since it offers the staple of their winter diet, crab. The whimbrel uses its long curved bill to probe for crabs and other invertebrates in the sand along the shoreline. Not wanting a messy meal, the whimbrel will wash muddy crabs, and even break off its claws and legs before swallowing.
The California coast also offers the whimbrel’s preferred wintering habitats- tidal flats and marshes. Whimbrels will divide wintering habitats into separate territories, and also segregate their migration by age and sex. Beginning in the fall and extending over a three month period, the females are the first to take off, followed by the males, and lastly the juveniles.
During breeding season, usually occurring around May in the Arctic regions of Northern America, whimbrels use aerial displays to claim territory over their nesting grounds. Nests generally consist of shallow bowls carved out in the land, often lined with leaves and other plants. Females lay an average of two to five eggs at a time. These eggs can range from blue-green to brown, with both sexes working together to help incubate.
Mainly due to a loss of coastal wetlands and declines in their population, the conservation status of the whimbrel species is currently of high concern, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The extensive loss of original wetlands along coastal states makes it difficult for the whimbrel to easily locate a favorable wintering habitat. The whimbrel also faces threats from development and pollution. Hopefully efforts to save our watersheds and wetlands can eventually help move this species back to that of least concern. And maybe the next time you are out at the beach, watching the birds, you will be able to spot a whimbrel digging for crabs along the flats!