Curlew, Godwit or Whimbrel?
November 4, 2016
There are three large Sandpipers who winter along the Texas Gulf Coast that resemble each other. I am speaking of Curlews, Godwits and Whimbrels. After a bit of practice you can tell them apart, but they can be confusing especially if you just get a glimpse. Or if they are moving away from you. I looked all through my archives to find photos where the each of the birds have the same background to make the comparisons a bit easier.
For a little background Long-billed Curlews breed in the western plains, Marbled Godwits in the upper mid-west and Canada and Whimbrels in far Canada and Alaska BUT they all spend fall and winter along our Texas Gulf coast, plus other warm locales. They generally arrive in late September and stay until very early Spring, maybe March. Any of them in can be found wetlands, tidal estuaries, mudflats, flooded fields, and often beaches. Since we see them in the winter, we don't have the benefit of observing mating behaviors or activities.
They all eat by probing with the their long bills for insects and invertebrates plus burrowing shrimp and crabs. Curlews also eat grasshoppers, beetles and caterpillars. We have found Long-billed Curlews in grassy lawns eating mole crickets. Whimbrels have been known to eat berries and seeds. Godwits eat roots of aquatic plants as well as mollusks, marine worms and other invertebrates. But generally, they are large brown shorebirds with long thin bills.
Let's look at the Long-billed Curlews first. It is the largest Sandpiper and very easy to recognize by the LONG down-turned bill. The birds are about 19 - 25 inches in length with a wing span of 24-35 inches. The body is a patterned brown in color with brighter reddish-brown under wings. Long legs and a plain crown.
This is a male Long-billed Curlew who just finished a bath. I found him in a large puddle at Surfside where recent pipeline construction had left ruts and depressions. Bill Maroldo had wandered off to do some hand-held shots of Caracaras and I waited in the truck. I saw the Curlew approaching but never expected he would stop right in front of me for a bath!
And here is the great cinnamon brown under wings you might see in flight or if he is just showing off like this one. I know, I shared that photo a few weeks back on the post about Shrimpin at Surfside, but it is a great example.
I have looked everywhere for a female Long-billed Curlew image for comparison but I can't find any with the same mud or shore backgrounds. Except this really old one I took before I had access to Bill's monster 500mm lens.
Photos are difficult to show the difference in bill length for males and females, because a slight angle can foreshorten the bill and be misleading. Best way to learn is see a group of Curlews and compare; it will quickly become obvious which ones are the females. With a solitary bird it is a bit harder to determine the gender.
The male above was walking along the shore line at Bolivar Peninsula earlier this year and stopped to probe the wet sand. Note again the curve of the bill and the plain head.
Marbled Godwits are smaller than the Curlews and have a long, slightly upturned bill. Godwits are roughly 16 - 19 inches in length and have similar coloring to the Curlews, in fact you often find them feeding in the same close areas. The Marbled Godwit's bill has pink at the base.
This Marbled Godwit was at Bolivar Peninsula, and the photo was taken the same day as the Curlew above. We found them in June, a bit late in the year, but I keep reading that first year birds often stay over in winter locations since the chances of successful breeding are slim. Why risk a long needless migration flight when you can stay where there is plenty to eat?
Marbled Godwits probe in the mud for food the same as the Curlews. This one was poking around at the Texas City Dike a few weeks ago. Godwits are very elegant in my opinion. Look at that foot.
Several godwits were feeding with some American Avocets and Western Sandpipers. We had set up with crates and tripods near the same puddle where I accidentally abandoned my tripod last December. Sigh.
They have very similar coloring as the Curlews and also have a plain head. It appears the legs of the Marbled Godwit are darker than the Curlew, but take care with using leg color as a definitive trait as they all walk around in mud and that can fool you.
Of course color is important in bird identification, but shape, size, patterns, flight characteristics and habitat are more reliable. Years ago I took a class in Hawk Identification from Glenn Olsen through the Audubon Society. He is an enthusiastic birder and great teacher. I remember so well he stressed learning the shapes and habits of the hawks as the coloration can vary widely according to the age, location and time of year. There are adults, juveniles, light and dark morphs, races and sub-species to contend with in hawk identification and sometimes you only get a quick glimpse of the bird high overhead.
I think it is important advice for all bird identification, especially larger birds. If you can only identify Snowy Egret by his yellow feet, what do you do when he is standing in water?
Here is a Marbled Godwit almost buried eye-deep in the mud. You can't see any of the bill, but the size tells you it is not a Curlew. I have seen Curlews probe that deep before, but they do a twisting motion as well.
And the Whimbrel. I looked up the pronunciation but I still can't tell if it is "Whim-brel" or "Wim-brel". Whimbrels are about the same size as Marbled Godwits at around 15-19 inches in length, but seem a bit smaller. The overall coloration is lighter, with brown streaks and they have a more buffy-to-white breast and a light-patterned under wings instead of the flashy cinnamon.
Whimbrels have a down-curved bill, but it is much shorter than the Curlew's. The definitive mark is the streaked head, with a dark line through the eye and down each side of the head. Whimbrels also probe the mud for food, but not as deeply as the others. The curve of their bill matches the shape of the fiddler crab burrow which is one of their favorite foods.
While looking around in my archives (I have all my source RAW photos plus processed and edited images stored on external hard drives in duplicates) I found Whimbrels in the winter months but also as late as April.
Whimbrels are one of the most widely distributed shorebirds; breeding in the Arctic and migrating to Africa, South America , south Asia and South America.
OK, now you can identify three of our winter visitors next time you are hanging out on the mudflats, marshes or the beach! Was this helpful? Would you like to see more comparative identification posts? What other birds give you problems in the field? Let me know in the comments below: