Bird of the week – Week 56: Common whimbrel

The Common whimbrel is one of the many migrants who wing their way over vast distances to visit the shores of the southern African region during the summer. They arrive from the northern hemisphere around August each year and leave again around March. They don’t breed during this visit, however, preferring to breed during their sojourn in the northern half of the globe, the visitors to southern Africa possibly breeding in eastern Russia and Siberia.
Quite a large bird, with a length of about 42 cm, the Common whimbrel has a brown head and brown mottled upperparts. The underparts are also mottled, but are lighter in colour. The long, decurved bill is black, the legs are yellow and the eyes are brown. The sexes are alike in plumage, but the females are larger than the males and have a longer bill. The distribution of the birds during their months in southern Africa is almost entirely limited to the coast, where they prefer sandy lagoons and estuaries.
Common whimbrels feed by probing into the sand, particularly in the intertidal areas; probing, walking forward and probing again. They may also adopt a static hunting pose while waiting for a burrowing crab or some such delicacy to emerge, darting forward at the crucial moment to secure the unfortunate prey. They feed mainly on crustaceans and molluscs.
The call of the Common whimbrel, most commonly given while the bird is in flight, is a loudly uttered “upupupupu” that can be heard from quite a distance.
The scientific binomial for the Common whimbrel is Numenius phaeopus; Numenius from the Greek for a new moon (presumably a reference to the curved bill) and phaeopus from the Greek for brown-footed. Thus we have a bird with brown feet and a bill shaped like a crescent moon. Not very accurate and not very helpful, but there you are.

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