Whimbrel Wanderings

A large brown shorebird with long curved bill stands in the grasses of the Arctic tundra.
Whimbrel on tundra breeding grounds. Credit: Shiloh Schulte/USFWS
A large brown and white shorebird sits on a nest surrounded by tundra plants.
A whimbrel sits tight on a Kanuti tundra nest site. Credit: Chris Harwood/USFWS.

Finding Numeniini: a tundra patch surprise

“I arrived by ski plane in late April, and it was my first time to visit during this part of the year. It is a really special season, when the ice breaks up, the birch trees begin to leaf out, and the migratory birds arrive and begin their mating displays.”

A large shorebird with ruddy chest and long bill stands on a chunk of ice in a melting lake.
Hudsonian godwit on the melting spring ice at Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Luke Smithwick/USFWS.
Photo left: melting ice during late spring at Kanuti Lake; Photo right: a whimbrel perches at the top of a burned spruce tree in a tundra patch south of the lake. Wildfire is common in the refuge’s boreal forest, and it helps to shape the mosaic of landscape. Credit: Ronan Dugan/USFWS.

“While we knew of a previous whimbrel pair near the Kanuti Lake cabin, we didn’t expect to find this larger population within the boreal wetlands. Both godwits and whimbrels tend to nest beyond treeline on open tundra or in more subalpine areas in the Interior like the Alaska Range.”

Photo of a man holding a large brown and white shorebird on the open tundra.
Numeniini biologist Robert Gill holds a captured whimbrel fitted with a satellite transmitter. Photo by Daniel Ruthrauff, USGS.

Whimbrel #03’s Itinerary: Kanuti to Ecuador and back

Map of North American and part of South America with lines and dots in different colors showing the track of one whimbrel from Kanuti to Equador, round trip.
Map of North America and part of South America showing the annual migration cycle of Whimbrel #03. Yellow, orange, and red/pink dots and lines show the route taken during the southern migration between June and September, 2009 from Alaska to Mexico and Ecuador. Purple and blue dots and lines show the route during the northern migration returning to Kanuti Refuge through California. Source: USGS.
A brown and white shorebird on stands on the Arctic tundra.
A whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) pauses on the open Arctic tundra. Credit: Peter Pearsall/USFWS.

Mapping Migration

Maps show the west coast of North and South America, including labels and numbers to show staging sites during whimbrel migration. Map Left: Tracks from 2010–15 from Whimbrel T6, captured on the Colville River. Dotted lines indicate southbound and solid lines indicate northbound migration; colors represent different years. Map Center and Right: Migratory tracks of Alaska-breeding whimbrels during southbound (A) and northbound (B) migrations. The tracks represent thirty-one individuals from Kanuti (in blue) and Colville (in red). For birds with repeat tracks, only the first migration of each bird is shown for clarity. Circles with numbers represent staging areas used by the whimbrels before longer flights (more than 72 hours). Source: USGS.
  • Though they nest relatively close to one another on the summer Arctic tundra (some within 300 feet), their final non-breeding coastal destinations spread out over 70 degrees of latitude, from Mexico to Chile.
  • Collectively, this small group of whimbrels touched the coast of every country along the Pacific Flyway once they left their breeding grounds in Alaska.
  • When departing from Kanuti and Colville to begin their southbound flights, the whimbrels lingered in other areas of coastal Alaska for several weeks to fuel up before their long flights, including several National Wildlife Refuges: Selawik, Innoko, Koyukuk, Yukon Delta, Togiak, and Alaska Peninsula.
  • Some of their tracked non-stop flights are among the longest recorded for land birds (e.g. about 5400 miles between Santo Domingo Chile and agricultural lands near Calipatria, California).
A large brown and white shorebird stands on the sandy beach near the water and holds a small crustacean in its bill.
A whimbrel on the beach of Paracas, Peru. Credit: Creative Commons license CC BY-NC 2.0, Flyingfabi.

“However, this study really shows how much of the eastern Pacific Flyway Whimbrels rely on. Their conservation is a Western Hemispheric challenge, not just a Kanuti or Alaska one. We’re all connected.”

A large brown and white shorebird stands on the sandy beach.
Whimbrel along the Pacific coast. Credit: Peter Pearsall/USFWS.

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Stories from Alaska by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

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U.S.Fish&Wildlife Alaska

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Stories from Alaska by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

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