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Science & Environment

Whimbrels on Cape Cod: Big, Spectacular, and Poorly Known

Mark Faherty

It’s a late summer afternoon on Lieutenant Island in Wellfleet, and some suspicious characters are hanging around by the bridge. Some are crouching behind the railings, and others are peering through high powered optics.

Yet another lies motionless and invisible on the surface of the marsh, hidden under a pile of dead grass. What sort of shadowy paramilitary group might this be? Don’t call the police just yet, because these guys are shorebird researchers, and this is all on the up and up.

Beginning last year, Brad Winn of Manomet, the organization formerly known as Manomet Bird Observatory, has been on the prowl for Cape Cod Whimbrels. He is part of a collaborative project studying migration routes for this big, spectacular, and poorly known sandpiper with the enormous, curved bill. Brad and other researchers have been fitting Whimbrels with lightweight solar powered satellite transmitters that provide real time data on the birds’ locations.

The research has mainly focused on birds trapped on their Arctic breeding grounds and at stopover sites in Georgia and Virginia. But last year, Brad tagged the first ever Whimbrel from the northeastern US near Forest Beach in Chatham. That bird, conveniently named Chatham, has been hanging out in the British Virgin Islands since he migrated there last fall. Chatham elected to stay put this past spring rather than fly back to the Arctic, and I can’t say as I blame him. I picture him sipping a tropical drink on one of those travel brochure Caribbean beaches, all blue-green water and sugar sand.

This year, I worked with Brad to scout some new trapping locations, and decided we should try Wellfleet. There’s no better place in the northeast to see Whimbrels than in Wellfleet, and the reason has to do with their preferred snack. Whimbrels feed almost exclusively on fiddler crabs, the comical crab with the one giant claw. The density of these crabs in the marshes of Wellfleet Harbor is such that their mass movements sound like heavy rain. When they need to, Whimbrels are able to rip the crabs right out of their underground burrows with that long and fortuitously curved bill.

With lots of crabs and several Whimbrels, the new location paid off handsomely, and Brad tagged two different juvenile Whimbrels on Lieutenant Island. One is named Lieutenant after Lieutenant Anthony, the Wampanoag namesake of the island, and the other is Blackfish, after the old name for the pilot whales that have always stranded in those creeks.

The goal of this research is to discover important stopover and wintering sites for these and other vulnerable shorebirds, to more efficiently direct on-the-ground conservation efforts. In the 19th and early 20th century, Whimbrels were a favorite target of American market gunners and sport hunters, who knew them as “Hudsonian Curlew”. Numbers have never fully recovered, and hunters still shoot them today in South America and the Caribbean, particularly on the island of Guadeloupe, which is technically part of France. In 2011, two satellite-tracked Whimbrels survived a death-defying oceanic flight through the middle of Hurricane Irene, only to be shot as soon as they landed in Guadeloupe.

Assuming they survive the gauntlet of hurricanes and guns that inevitably awaits their migration in the next couple of weeks, you can track the progress of Lieutenant, Blackfish, and Chatham on the website, which, despite the name is a clearinghouse for all kinds of satellite tracking studies. Search for the Georgia Whimbrel project.

As for me, I’m holding out hope that some funder will send me down to the British Virgin Islands to check on Chatham, last year’s juvenile. I assume he’ll have a Rum Punch waiting for me.