It’s unsurprising if you have not heard of a Steppe Whimbrel; the subspecies was declared extinct in 1994. In this context, a new paper in Wader Study, based on detailed studies of two birds that were found in Mozambique in 2016, adds immensely to our knowledge.
Bleak times for the Numeniini
The curlew family is facing huge pressures across the globe. Eskimo Curlew and Slender-billed Curlew are either extinct or close to extinction, with no confirmed sightings for 56 and 18 years, respectively. We are definitely losing species but are we losing diversity within individual species too – as suggested by the rarity of the Steppe Whimbrel and the fragmenting distribution of the Hudsonian Godwit? There is a lot of information about the current status of different populations and subspecies of the Numeniini family in Why are we losing our large waders? a WaderTales blog about curlews, godwits and the Upland Sandpiper based on a review paper by James Pierce-Higgins and colleagues.
As a species, the Whimbrel is categorised as ‘of least concern’ but the ‘once extinct’ Steppe Whimbrel would be considered as ‘critically endangered’ if it were to be a species, rather than a subspecies.
Whimbrel are circumpolar in distribution and it is generally accepted that there are four subspecies:
- phaeopus breed from Iceland through Scandinavia and into western Siberia; they spend the non-breeding season largely in western and southern Africa.
- variegatus breed across the rest of north-eastern Russia and migrate to southeast Asia and Australia.
- hudsonicus breed across northern Canada and Alaska and migrate to Latin America.
- alboaxillaris are thought only to breed in the steppes of Russia and Kazakhstan, at the centre of the European land-mass, and to winter only in southeast Africa.
First find (and identify) a Steppe Whimbrel
The fact that Steppe Whimbrel was considered to be extinct just 25 years ago gives a clue as to how hard it is to find one. Details about recent records are summarised in a new paper in Wader Study by Gary Allport and colleagues, that forms the basis of this WaderTales blog. Three breeding sites have been identified, holding a maximum of 19 breeding pairs, in total, and a maximum autumn count of 11 birds has been recorded on passage, on the shores of the Caspian Sea in 2010. The two birds that Gary found in Maputo, Mozambique in February 2016 are the first wintering records in Africa (or anywhere else) since 1965.
The photographs above show that the two birds found at Maputo by Gary Allport of BirdLife International are different in several respects to the phaeopus with which they associated:
- Steppe Whimbrel are bigger
- There are cleaner/paler in overall appearance
- The rump is paler
- They have white axillaries
For more information see Allport, G. & C. Cohen. 2016. Finding Steppe Whimbrel: discovery and identification in southern Africa. AfricanBirdlife 4: 48–54. If you come across what you think is a Steppe Whimbrel, possibly in eastern Africa during the non-breeding season, check for white under-wings and take as many pictures as possible!
At the time of the discovery of the two Steppe Whimbrels, BirdLife had already got a strategy in place to deal with the unexpected appearance of a Slender-billed Curlew – ever hopeful that this species is not extinct. If seen in the non-breeding season, a bird was to be caught and satellite-tagged, in order to try to find its breeding area. The same procedures seemed appropriate for the Maputo Steppe Whimbrels and one bird was duly caught and tagged. That’s probably another story – anticipation – tension – concern for the bird’s safety – relief when it accepted its tag and behaved normally – and elation when data started coming in.
The Maputo area, in which the two Steppe Whimbrel were found, comprises about 6 km of tidal muddy sand banks and flats. The area is heavily used by people, with zoned sections for various uses including traditional worship and tourism. The two Steppe Whimbrel were found by chance in February 2016, at the high tide roost on the upper beach. One was bigger than the other, suggesting a female and male. No other alboaxillaris were found in a larger population of 650 Whimbrel photo-identified in Maputo Bay. This paper talks about the discovery: Allport, G. 2017. Steppe Whimbrels Numenius phaeopus alboaxillaris at Maputo, Mozambique, in February–March 2016, with a review of the status of the taxon. Bulletin African Bird Club 24: 27–37.
The local movements of the two Steppe Whimbrel in Maputo Bay, Mozambique, were studied opportunistically from February to March 2016. Both birds were found to be part of a local sub-population of ca. 30 Whimbrel which held individual feeding territories on sandy shorelines. There are important details about behaviour and habitat-use in the Wader Study paper. The male was seen more frequently and predictably. Knowledge of his movements made it possible to catch him, by dazzle-netting at night, on 6 March. Metal and colour-rings were added, together with a PTT satellite tag. A DNA sample proved that he was indeed a male.
The male was noticeably plump when caught, suggesting that he was already preparing for northward migration. Data gathered from the tag during the period before departure added valuable extra information about key feeding areas north of the main study area, where mangroves make it hard to observe birds.
Time to fly north
The female Steppe Whimbrel was last seen in the Maputo area on 28 February 2016, and it is suggested that she may have left the areas on or shortly after this date. The last sighting of the male was on 24 March 2016 and, using information from his PTT satellite tag, the Mozambique team know that he started to migrate the next day. Although nearly a month after the possible departure of the female, this is still one month earlier than the onset of migration for the phaeopus subspecies. This is not unexpected; phaeopus birds are heading for higher latitudes than alboaxillaris, which breed in the heart of the Eurasian continent, in the steppes of Asia.
Upon leaving Mozambique, the tagged male headed over Tanzania before the scheduled transmission phase ended. At the start of the next recording period, the bird had travelled to the northern end of the Great Rift Valley in Ethiopia. He then turned in a more easterly route to the Somali coast. During the tag’s next ‘off phase’ he crossed the Gulf of Aden where he was picked up moving up and down the coast before settling on some salt-pans in the area of Little Aden.
The tagged bird made a 4,659-km journey in six days to Aden, Yemen and his migration route was consistent with the direction of travel for the known breeding areas of alboaxillaris. The track data are the first firm evidence of a long-suspected African transcontinental migration route for southeastern Afro-Palaearctic coastal waders.
The tagged Steppe Whimbrel stayed in the Little Aden coastal area of Yemen until 10 May, when the pattern of fixes changed to a stationary location in the northwest side of the bay. This suggested that the tag had fallen off the bird, possibly floated across the bay on the prevailing southeast wind and then settled on the shoreline. Confirmation of the loss of the tag came on 14 August, when Gary Allport came across the same Steppe Whimbrel, wearing colour rings, back in Maputo. That must have been a great moment.
Key take-home messages
If you are on the African shores of the Indian Ocean, in Africa’s Great Rift Valley or perhaps the coasts of western India or the Middle East, please check out any Whimbrel you see. Steppe Whimbrels live up to their names – look out for the white (albo) underwing (axillaris). Perhaps you will find the next Steppe Whimbrel and it will be in a location where capture is again possible. Maybe your bird will carry the next PTT transmitter for long enough to tell conservationists where to look for what must be a tiny population of breeding Steppe Whimbrel. Peter Ryan of the Percy Fitzpatrick Institute of African Ornithology (University of Cape Town), has recently secured funding from the Mohamed Bin Zayed Fund to tag Steppe Whimbrel. He and Gary are on the look-out for any birds that might be suitable for further study.
One of the great things about this tracking study is that it acts as a trial-run, should anyone find a Slender-billed Curlew or (even more unlikely) an Eskimo Curlew. We know that BirdLife scientists and their colleagues have the skills needed safely to catch a rare, large wader and to maximise the amount of information that can be gathered about its migratory movements. Fingers crossed that it’s not too late to find out what is happening to other Steppe Whimbrel, or possibly even Slender-billed Curlew. Sadly, I think that we have to admit that the Eskimo Curlew is now almost certainly extinct.
Click on the paper details below to link to the Wader Study website. Full text is only available to members of the International Wader Study Group.
Allport, G.A., P.W. Atkinson, M. Carvalho, N.A. Clark & R.E. Green. Local site use and first northbound migration track of non-breeding Steppe Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus alboaxillaris (Lowe 1921). Wader Study 125(3). doi:10.18194/ws.00126
Graham (@grahamfappleton) has studied waders for over 40 years and is currently involved in wader research in the UK and in Iceland. He was Director of Communications at The British Trust for Ornithology until 2013 and is now a freelance writer and broadcaster.