One of the most widespread shorebirds around the world, the Whimbrel is a large shorebird that nests across North America and Eurasia. They winter on the coasts of 6 continents, all but Antarctica, and gather in huge flocks during migration season. They are long-distance migrants that travel across thousands of miles, over open oceans, and through multiple countries before they reach their wintering destinations. Sometimes, they may travel as far as the Latin American countries of Bolivia from their Arctic breeding grounds.

About Whimbrels

Whimbrels were named after their calls by the British, who believed that they sounded much like the word “whimbrel”. Their genus Numenius has been named after the Ancient Greek word for “new moon” (noumenios). These birds are so widespread that they were first mentioned in the 6th century C. E by the Greek chronicler Hesychius. Since then, they have cemented themselves in the cultural memories of much of Eurasia, with their images being compared to the ambiance of coastal regions. Today, we will be looking at these much documented and widely loved birds Whimbrels.

● Whimbrel Photos, Color Pattern, Song
● Whimbrel Size, Eating Behavior, Habitat
● Whimbrel Range and Migration, Nesting


Whimbrel Color Pattern

Whimbrels are large shorebirds with dark brown upper parts with pale buff shades. Their underparts match the markings on their upperparts, being a similar pale buff color. Their neck and breast have dark brown streaks, while their abdomen is pale. The axillaries are barred, while their crown is a blackish-brown that has a pale, central stripe going through it. These birds have prominent white “eyebrows” (also known as supercilium) and a uniform, dark pattern on their rump that resembles the rest of their upper parts. There is some variation in plumage depending on where in the range the birds reside, with North America populations being a richer buff overall with white barred patterns.

Juveniles have a buffier breast than adults, with a minute and thinner streaking along with clearer buff markings on their flight feathers. They are generally browner above and more buff below. Whimbrels do not exhibit sexual dimorphism, with both males and females looking identical to each other in plumage.

Description and Identification

Whimbrels are large shorebirds that are usually on open tundra, beaches, and mudflats. Since these terrains are all rather flat, spotting them is relatively easy as they stand out. Along the coastlines, they are falling on a newly low tide, with the flocks moving to high-tide roosts when the tide rises. These high-tide roosts are in saltmarshes or on small islands. Their clear, piercing whistles are also another identifier, as their calls generally give their presence away. If you find the source of their call, keep an eye out for their long, decurved bills and their brown, spotted bodies.

Whimbrel Song

Despite their vocalizations needing further study, the calls imply that Whimbrels have a broad vocal range. Their most distinct call is their piercing but softly whistled “cur-lee” or “cur-lew”. Only migrating birds make these calls, with the vocal array of breeding birds being very different. Migrating birds also give out twittering calls that last for a couple of seconds and consist of 5–7 “pips” or far-reaching “pus”. These calls form the basis of their older names for them, when they were the “seven-whistlers”. They use piping whistles in aggressive interactions at feeding territories, but not on the breeding grounds.

Whimbrels have a variety of different vocalizations that they use during the breeding seasons. The most characteristic one is the low whistle call, a soft and mournful whistle that occurs up to 20 times. They make these calls during the aerial displays of the birds and sounds like a “koo”. Their second call is a low trill call, also known as the bubbling call. It sounds like a “teeeeu” before it ends with a bubbling trill. The whole call generally lasts for about 8 seconds.

Their whining calls are a loud, intense, and abrupt scream-like whistle that gradually increases in intensity before ending very suddenly. While they can make it soft, it is generally loud. It is also a long, drawn-out whistle that sounds like a “wee-ee” or a “cur-eee”. Sometimes, this call is followed by the low trill call. Other calls include a settling whistle, a soft whistle that is given as a bird settles down on its nest. It sounds similar to a human sigh.

Their whit call is a short whit that they make twice, once when a member of a pair flies low over an observer and the other time when females watch their newly hatched chicks leave the nest. This call is most likely a general anxiety call. The aerial predator alarm call is a relatively high, loud trill of 4-8 short elements. It has a trilling quality to it and is only when the bird is chasing away an aerial predator or while diving down towards an intruder. The ground predator alarm call is a similar loud trill that they make as they fly low along with the brown towards a terrestrial intruder.

The scolding trill call is a rapid succession of loud, short elements that have three types. They use it when they are anxious or excited and sounds like a “krek krek krek” or a “kwok kwok kwok”. In situations of extreme excitement, it is a harsh, screaming bark that sounds like “quak, qua-quak”. The parental call is a low, gurgling tremolo that both adults make once the eggs begin to hatch until the chicks are about a week old. Chicks themselves only give out a quiet peep call as a contact note with their parents, and a loud and harsh “wheee” call when they are in distress.

Whimbrel Size

Whimbrels are large shorebirds that have a body length of 16.9–18.1 inches and an approximate weight of 10.9–14.3 ounces. They have very long, decurved bills that point towards the ground, and a relatively long neck and legs. Their long, pointed wings have a wingspan of 31.5–32.5 inches, while their tail is rather short.

Whimbrel Behavior

These birds are mainly terrestrial, walking and running rapidly while foraging for food. They feed by sticking their long bills into mudflats or into wet sand and searching for invertebrate prey. Occasionally, they may perch on tree stumps, or on their breeding grounds, but they commonly perch on mangrove trees at their wintering grounds. They are; however, strong fliers that often glide for long distances. Although they fly low to the ground during the breeding seasons, they reach for much higher altitudes during migration. Like other shorebirds, they also swim very well and frequently swim while bathing.

These birds also get quite aggressive during the breeding seasons, primarily due to territoriality and courtship. Males chase intruding males away from their territory through aerial pursuits, but both sexes attack intruders if they fail to retreat. If the hostile situation continues to escalate, attacks become physical. The attacking bird strikes with their bill or with a single wing sharply against the breast or upper back of the intruder while attempting to mount the latter. Sometimes, the defending bird may even bite the intruder. Their aggressive nature likely reduces during the winter, but hostile interactions may emerge over feeding territories.

Whimbrels are monogamous during the breeding seasons and often return to the same breeding grounds to mate with the same mate over many years. They nest in loose colonies of just a few pairs, with their aggressive behavior not as noticeable when neighbors cross into their territories. These birds also migrate and roost in flocks, often engaging in these activities with other smaller shorebirds.

Whimbrel Diet

Whimbrels mainly feed on marine and aquatic crustaceans and invertebrates that are available in intertidal zones. Their prey mainly includes fiddler crabs, swimming crabs, mud crabs, crayfish, mole crabs, small fish, marine worms, sea cucumbers, sand shrimp, and small mollusks like coffee bean snails. They clean out their prey before consuming it. Whimbrels also consume a wide range of terrestrial insects throughout the year, like flies, beetles, and grasshoppers. They also eat anthropods like spiders. They also feed on many kinds of berries if animal prey is scarce. The kinds of berries they consume are blueberry, bearberry, cranberry, crowberry, huckleberry, cloudberry, and many others.

Whimbrel Habitat

Whimbrels can be found breeding in the coastal tundra and heath along the Arctic and subarctic regions. They are also found in the alpine tundra, taiga, and in drier upland environments where there is an abundance of berries. Wetter lowlands with grasses, sedges, lichens, mosses, small shrubs, and stunted trees are also a popular choice for their nesting grounds. Their wintering grounds are more diverse, where they mainly gravitate towards tidal mudflats and sandflats. They also forage in saltmarshes, lagoons, estuaries, and on reefs and rocky shorelines. Hard mudbanks and mangrove swamps also attract these birds in the tropical areas, where they make use of marshes, meadows, fields, dunes, and oyster beds.

Range and Migration

Whimbrels breed in the subarctic regions of Alaska and north-western Canada, with some populations also breeding by the Hudson Bay. Migration season takes them through either the Pacific or the Atlantic Coast, towards the regions of Mexico and Central America, and coastal areas along with South America. They are long-distance migrants and can sometimes fly over open waters, but generally tend to remain over coastal sides.

Whimbrel Lifecycle

Whimbrels only have a single brood each season, with the brood having a clutch size of 3–4 olive to buff eggs. Both sexes incubate the eggs for about 24-28 days, after which the young emerge covered in down. The young are able to leave the nest within an hour or two of hatching and are able to feed themselves within a week as well. Both parents remain to brood and protect the young, actively attacking any predators or intruders. The young are able to fly after 5–6 weeks, after which they are fully independent.


Nest sites are places on raised areas like hummocks or small ridges, usually with some vegetation around to shelter it from the wind. The nests themselves are simple bowls that are pressed into the ground and then lined with surrounding vegetation like leaves, grasses, or lichens.

Anatomy of a Whimbrel

Whimbrels are large shorebirds that have a body length of 16.9–18.1 inches and an approximate weight of 10.9-14.3 ounces. They have very long, decurved bills that point towards the ground, and a relatively long neck and legs. Their long, pointed wings have a wingspan of 31.5–32.5 inches, while their tail is rather short.

Final Thoughts

These birds have been estimated to be a species of low conservation concern. In the early 20th century, they were heavily hunted in North America for food, and continue to be hunted in parts of Central and South America. Other threats that affect their numbers include habitat loss due to the destruction or modification of coastal wetland habitats, pollution, and climate change that leads to a rise in the sea level.

Whimbrels are one of a kind among shorebirds. They are also continually offering new insights to scientific communities around the world. Their mournful whistles have long been associated with the loud aural environments of the coasts, as they continue to enrapture and catch the attention of those who are lucky enough to hear it.


Bird Watching Academy & Camp Subscription Boxes

At the Bird Watching Academy & Camp we help kids, youth, and adults get excited and involved in bird watching. We have several monthly subscription boxes that you can subscribe to. Our monthly subscription boxes help kids, youth, and adults learn about birds, bird watching, and bird conservation.

Bird Watching Binoculars for Identifying Whimbrels

The most common types of bird watching binoculars for viewing Whimbrels are 8×21 binoculars and 10×42 binoculars. Bird Watching Academy & Camp sells really nice 8×21 binoculars and 10×42 binoculars. You can view and purchase them here.

Whimbrel Stickers

Stickers are a great way for you to display your love for bird watching and the Whimbrel. We sell a monthly subscription sticker pack. The sticker packs have 12 bird stickers. These sticker packs will help your kids learn new birds every month.

Bird Feeders ForWhimbrels

There are many types of bird feeders. Bird feeders are a great addition to your backyard. Bird feeders will increase the chances of attracting birds drastically. Both kids and adults will have a great time watching birds eat at these bird feeders. There are a wide variety of bird feeders on the market and it is important to find the best fit for you and your backyard.

Bird HousesForWhimbrels

There are many types of bird houses. Building a bird house is always fun but can be frustrating. Getting a bird house for kids to watch birds grow is always fun. If you spend a little extra money on bird houses, it will be well worth every penny and they’ll look great.

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