𝘕𝘰𝘷𝘦𝘮𝘣𝘦𝘳 10, 2021
I got news about a big win for endangered birds from the Cornell Lab site this week. In May 2021 it was discovered that a small barrier island known as Deveaux Bank near Charleston, South Carolina, was a stopover site along the bird’s arduous journey. Whimbrels congregate on the island for a month or more in spring, pausing in their migration to feed on fiddler crabs in the rich tidal marshes. Whimbrels are considered by some birders to be the big game of shorebirds. They are large, powerful, wary, and usually in small and scattered numbers. Like all the world’s nine remaining species of curlews (a large wading bird of the sandpiper family, with a long down-curved bill and brown streaked plumage), they are in serious decline. Some 20,000 Whimbrels gather each night on Deveaux Bank during this migratory stopover. This is the largest such gathering known anywhere on the planet.
When I looked online, I found the Hudsonian whimbrel (Numenius hudsonicus) is a wader in the large family Scolopacidae. It is one of the most widespread of the curlews, breeding across much of subarctic North America. This species and the Eurasian whimbrel have recently been split, although some taxonomic authorities still consider them to be conspecific. The whimbrel is a migratory bird, wintering on coasts in southern North America and South America. It is also a coastal bird during migration, as the stopover on Deveaux illustrates. It is sociable outside the breeding season. In the mangroves of Colombia, whimbrel roost sites are near feeding territories and away from potential sources of mainland predators. Sadly, they are not far enough away to escape human disturbance.
There are two main populations of Whimbrels in North America. The western group breeds from the Northwest Territories along the Mackenzie River delta into western Alaska (Numenius hudsonicus rufiventris), while the eastern group nests south and west of Hudson Bay (Numenius hudsonicus hudsonicus). Some experts consider these two groups to be separate species. It is thought the bulk of the Whimbrels passing through Deveaux are the Hudsonian birds. In autumn, the whimbrels head south through the Great Lakes to the coast of South Carolina or Georgia, staging together in much smaller numbers than in spring, and then follow the arc of the Bahamas and Antilles to the northeastern coast of South America. That means they fly through the region known as Hurricane Alley, and many of the birds are forced to rest and recover on the islands of the Lesser Antilles. In French-controlled oversea isles such as Guadeloupe and Martinique, the largely uncontrolled shooting of shorebirds remains legal. Guadeloupe is advertised internationally for its shorebird “destination hunts.”
𝗧𝗵𝗼𝘂𝗴𝗵𝘁𝘀: While the discovery at Deveaux is a marvel, the Whimbrel as a species has declined by more than half since 1994, and this trend shows no signs of reversing. Like so many threatened species, the whimbrel’s decline is a direct response to human destruction of habitat and predation. The fact that so many birds gather on this one small island highlights a previously underappreciated aspect of Whimbrel biology that could reveal a key to a conservation strategy to save them. We need to provide the birds a safe place to spend the night. Follow the science. Change is coming and it starts with you.