Whimbrel: Amazing Journeys with a Local Stopover

I have to confess, I don’t know how to write this Whimbrel post without gushing, and perhaps a bunch of cliches.  Last night was one of those lifetime opportunities: I got to see thousands of birds coming in to roost, and the most exciting part of it was the huge flocks of Whimbrel. My quick movie is an introduction to this fascinating bird, but don’t stop there.  Far better film-makers than I have tackled this subject, so be sure to check them out below.

Arriving to forage

It was so exciting to see Whimbrel arriving last week~ popping in to forage in the mud flats and oyster banks on the island.  I spent half an hour watching one forage yesterday, plucking fiddler crabs from their burrows and rinsing them in the mud before gobbling them. In the second photo, you can see the tiny Semi-Palmated Plover for contrast.


A Coastal Expeditions Tour

When Coastal Expeditions announced a tour to see the Whimbrel land in large flocks, I was so excited I bought tickets immediately. (If you’re not on their mailing list, you can subscribe here.) Every trip I’ve taken with them has been worth it, with knowledgeable guides and captains who know how to observe nature without disturbing it.  They were offering a first-of-a-kind tour to see the Whimbrel come in to roost at Deveaux Bank.  This small uninhabited spit of land is off limits to people during nesting season, but this journey had the support and supervision of SCDNR. We didn’t have to go far before we saw a dock literally covered in birds: Whimbrel, American Oystercatchers, Dowitchers, Ruddy Turnstones, Sandwich Terns, Forsters Terns, Laughing Gulls, Least Terns, Blackbellied Plovers and more.

Appropriately, there was a new moon. The genus for Whimbrel is Numenius, which means new moon, for the shape of that curved bill. High tide means that the birds have fewer places to rest so they are concentrated in the available locations.  Along the banks of the river, there were more birds on the banks, and as we approached Deveaux and Botany, the dolphins were feeding and the pelicans were diving.  

As Captain Chris Crolley pointed out, any day you can hear the dolphins exhale is a day where you’re doing something right!  With each minute, we could see more Whimbrel: on the shores and in the sky.

As we approached Deveaux, we could see a multitude of birds resting along the bank.  First was a colony of Black Skimmers. Then a more mixed flock, with Ruddy Turnstones, Black-Bellied Plovers, Sanderlings, Willets, Dowitchers, and to my delight, Red Knots.

As we watched, the skies were filled with the raucous cries of birds: gulls wheeling overhead, and Willets calling, and Whimbrel calling as they settled in on the sand and on rafts of grasses floating lightly on the surface.

We watched until the light faded and photos became hard to take, and then some more.  It was so much fun to see seasoned naturalists and birders giddy with the sight of a nature phenomenon, basically right in our backyard!

The Whole Whimbrel Story: Discovery at Deveaux

…one of the most mind-blowing discoveries in the history of 20th- and 21st-century ornithology

John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Last spring, the Charleston Museum hosted a premiere event for a film created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, at an event called Discovery at Deveaux.  For context, the director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at the time called it “one of the most mind-blowing discoveries in the history of 20th- and 21st-century ornithology.”

SCDNR Wildlife Biologist Felicia Sanders (who helped lead the charge to create this huge swath of protected land for shorebirds) had made an amazing discovery that was still kind of a secret. I have watched the movie below dozens of times~ my favorite thing is the palpable joy on the part of biologists. Find a seat and watch this: it’s worth every minute for a message of conservation hope.

The story made it to the New York Times,   Garden and Gun Magazine, and CBS Sunday Morning.  Here’s a quote from that last one that pretty much sums up my experience last night:

Clouds of birds, look at them against the sunset.  You tell yourself, “memorize the sight”, and then you whisper to your soul, “I am glad to be alive, so I can witness this astonishing thing!”

Click here for more from J. Drew Lanham about his connection to and reflections on this discovery, and another incredibly beautiful video from the same people that produced the Cornell video, with Dr. Lanham’s comments on place, connections, reparations, and hope.