Birds of North Carolina:
their Distribution and Abundance
Whimbrel - Numenius phaeopus
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General Comments For a large shorebird, the Whimbrel is quite numerous in North America, and it is not difficult to find along the coast in spring and fall. As with many other shorebirds that are essentially migrants in the state, a few birds linger along the coast into the winter season, and a few make it through the entire winter. But, as with essentially all curlews and godwits, migrating birds seldom stop between their inland (high Arctic) breeding grounds and the coastal areas, and sightings in inland parts of the state are always of note. Whimbrels favor extensive tidal mudflats, including shallow salt or brackish water. They can also be seen on oceanfront beaches, as well as fresh and brackish pools along the coast, jetties, and other places near open water. The rather distinctive European subspecies (phaeopus), which has a white triangle ("wedge") on its lower back and rump (like that of many other large shorebirds), has been seen a few times along the coast.
Breeding Status Nonbreeder
NC BRC List Definitive
State Status
U.S. Status
State Rank SZ
Global Rank G5
Coastal Plain Transient, and scarce winter resident/visitor along the coast. Along the coast, fairly common to locally common migrant in both spring and fall (though less numerous in fall than in spring); rare to very uncommon in midwinter along the southern coast (New Hanover and Brunswick), rare in midwinter on the central coast, and very rare farther north (Outer Banks northward); rare to very uncommon in midsummer, as a non-breeder. Mainly mid-Mar to mid-Nov, with peak numbers in mid-May and late Jul to mid-Aug, and with a drop in Jun; small numbers in winter. In Tidewater areas, mostly rare to locally uncommon migrant; farther inland, casual migrant, with only about five records, mid-May to early Jun, and late Jul to mid-Aug, with two remarkable far inland counts: 20, Darlington (Halifax), 3 Jun 1983; and 15, Goldsboro, 30 Jul 1956. Unusual in habitat and location was one in a grassy field in southeastern Nash on 2-3 Sep 2023. Peak counts: 224, off Sunset Beach (Brunswick), 17 May 2014; 125, east end of Ocean Isle Beach (Brunswick), 5 May 2014; 100, Cape Lookout, 18 May 1973.

There are six records of the European subspecies, five from the central coast (Carteret only): 10 Apr 1984; 10 May 1992; 27 May 2002; 17 Oct 1983; and 12 Nov 2003. Another was photographed near Avon on the Outer Banks, 6-12 Apr 2011* [Chat 75:129 link]. This last record was accepted by the NC BRC [Chat 79:13 link].

Piedmont Transient. Casual in spring, and very rare in fall, with most records in the eastern portion, especially at Jordan Lake; early to late May (only seven records), and mid-Jul to early Oct. Peak counts: 20, Kerr Lake, 24 May 1976; 13, Lake Crabtree (Wake), 19 May 2020; 3, Margret (Franklin), 19 May 1999.
Mountains Very rare fall transient, and casual in spring. Three of the records surprisingly are from grass balds at high elevations: 2, Big Bald Mountain (Yancey), 30 Aug 1980; 1, Round Bald on Roan Mountain (Mitchell), 31 Jul 1987; 1, Big Bald Mountain, 16-21 Sep 2010. The other five records are: singles at Hooper Lane (Henderson) on 25 Jul 2001, 27-30 Jul 2012, and 5-6 Jul 2013; 1 caught by a Peregrine Falcon along the Blue Ridge Escarpment, and brought to its nest at Table Rock (Burke) in May 2006; and 1 at Lake Julian (Buncombe), 25 Sep 2020. Remarkable, for just the second spring record for the province, was a group of 28 Whimbrels at Hooper Lane seen on 16 May 2018 [Chat 82:87 link]. Other spring records were singles along Wilson Road (Transylvania) on 20 May 2020 and along Hooper Lane on 21 May 2020 (both of these after Tropical Storm Arthur).
Finding Tips This species is not difficult to find along the coast during migration. They are most common on barrier island beaches and mudflats, where flocks of 50 or more may be seen during fall migration in late Jul and early Aug.
Attribution LeGrand[2024-02-10], LeGrand[2023-03-10], LeGrand[2021-03-05]
NC Map
Map depicts all counties with a report (transient or resident) for the species.
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