Spot the Whimbrel: Icelandic and African

The whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus islandicus) is a wader (Charadriiformes) that belongs to the Scolopacidae family. In Iceland, all members of this family are migratory birds and they have a specialized bill for invertebrate feeding. This specialized bill enables many waders to feed in the same area as other species, without competing for food.

Size and shape

Whimbrels are rather large waders, they weigh 12-18 oz and are 15-17 in long. Their wings are large compared to their body size, with a wingspan of 30-35 in. Whimbrels are mostly brownish colored but often have a grayish color in the plumage and bright feather tips. Their belly and underwings are light-colored but their back, neck, and head are darker and they have a dark eyepatch. Their tail has brown stripes but the rump is white and very noticeable during flight. The main characteristic of the whimbrel are their long bluish-gray feet and the 2.75-4 in, curved bill. Both the feet and the bill are extremely useful for feeding in wetlands and around shores. The sexes look alike though the females are a bit larger than the males. Juveniles look like adult birds but have a shorter bill.

Did you know?

  1. There is an Icelandic saying that goes “the whimbrel sings porridge” since their singing resembles the sound of porridge boiling in a pot.
  2. Icelandic whimbrels migrate in the fall to Senegal in West-Africa, about 3100 miles away. It takes them only about 80-120 hours.
  3. The highest flying-speed during migration is 50-55 mph.
  4. Some whimbrels take a short break in the UK while migrating to Iceland in spring, while others fly non-stop all the way from West-Africa.
  5. In Iceland, the whimbrel is sometimes called a fortuneteller.

Population size and travels

The whimbrel is a migratory bird and spends a short summer period in Iceland since they have a long journey ahead to reach their wintering grounds in West-Africa. There are four subspecies of whimbrels. The Icelandic one is a special sub-species named islandicus, along with birds from Greenland, Scotland, and the Faroe Islands. The breeding population in Iceland is strong, counting 250 thousand birds, which is about 40% of the whole world population. About 70% of the sub-species, islandicus, breed in Iceland.

Most whimbrels arrive in Iceland in flocks in the middle of May but some may arrive in late April. The whimbrel is abundant in lowlands all over the country but fewer nest in the highlands. The main nesting habitat is where dryland meets wetland, though a few birds nest in grassy lava fields or even sandy beaches. Whimbrels are not very social except when they migrate to and from the country in groups. They nest sparsely and the couples do not socialize with other whimbrels during the nesting season. Couples are monogamous and their relationship is solid. The pair owns its territory which it defends against predators.

Breeding ecology and feeding

The female whimbrel lays 4 eggs in a small dent lined with dry hay, which the birds do not hide well, and both sexes incubate the eggs for 27-28 days. The eggs are light brown with darker spots and weight about 1.8 oz. The young leave the nest shortly after hatching and follow their parents to feeding grounds and stay with them until they can fly, around the age of 6 weeks. The whimbrel feeds on all sorts of invertebrates. Insects, worms, and crustaceans, along with berries in the fall, are on the menu. Their long curved bill is a useful feeding tool both on dryland and wetland.

The whimbrel is a traveler

In August, the birds accumulate in flocks and prepare for the long flight to the wintering grounds, often feeding in farmlands. In the middle of September, when a strong wind blows from the north, the flocks leave Iceland and head south to warmer climates. New studies have shown that Icelandic whimbrels can fly non-stop all the way to their wintering grounds in West-Africa. The journey takes them only about 5 days with an average speed of 31 mph. Icelandic whimbrels sometimes stay in Portugal and Spain, but always in low numbers.

The whimbrels’ song is the sound of summer

The song of whimbrels is a strong characteristic for Icelandic summer. Their singing, which Icelanders call “vell”, has inspired many poets throughout the years. Legend has it that whimbrels can predict the weather by making different sounds or a different “vell”. If the whimbrel sings a continuous sequence of sounds that resemble a violin, called “round-vell”, it indicates that the winter is finally over. A rhythmically sequence with a pause between the sounds is called “long-vell” and it means that there are rainy days ahead.

Whimbrels make many other complex sounds that inform their neighbors about what happens in their territory. Each spring, Icelanders wait to hear the whimbrels’ “vell”. Along with the neighing sounds of snipes (Gallinago gallinago) and the “dirrindí” singing of golden plovers (Pluvialis apricaria), these are the sounds of bright Icelandic summer nights.

Some curved links

Author: Dr. Þórður Örn Kristjánsson
Photographer: Ragnar Th. Sigurðsson