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Shooting Gauntlet In Caribbean – Migrating Whimbrels.

As hurricane season gets under way and Tropical Storm Isaac bears down on the Caribbean, biologists are paying particular attention to this fall’s shorebird migration.

Researchers at the Center for Conservation Biology (CCB) in Williamsburg, Virginia have documented incredible feats of endurance by migrating Whimbrels (large shorebirds with long, down-curved bills) flying through storms, only to fall foul to the guns of unregulated hunting on islands such as Guadeloupe and Martinique as well as Barbados, French Guiana, Suriname and Guyana.

Using satellite transmitters attached to the birds, researchers tracked one Whimbrel – named Hope – through a large tropical storm in 2011. She took 27 hours averaging just 9 mph to fly non-stop through the storm to get to the center; then she flew at an average of almost 100 mph for 1.5 hours out the back end, using the power of the storm to “slingshot” her towards land.

“Our research is documenting some of the truly amazing dynamics of bird migrations.  In addition to the simply staggering distances these birds travel – often thousands of miles at a time, nonstop – we are also observing what could be described as jaw dropping physical feats involving storms,” said Fletcher Smith, lead biologist on the tracking project. “These herculean efforts leave the birds exhausted and in need of a safe haven to rest and refuel.  Unfortunately there are few of these locations in the Lesser Antilles.”

Some locals gather at recreational shooting swamps in the Caribbean to slaughter with impunity everything that flies by. They claimed perhaps their most notable bird victims last year: two Whimbrels named Machi and Goshen that were being tracked by Smith’s team. Over a lifetime Machi is estimated to have flown 27,000 migration miles and made it through Tropical Storm Maria; Goshen had flown 14,000 miles including several hours battling Hurricane Irene. Forced to land in Guadalupe, an area they had avoided in previous recorded migrations, they were then killed by the unregulated hunters.

American Bird Conservancy (ABC) and other bird conservation groups expressed outraged at the continued tolerance of the shooting ranges, especially in Guadeloupe.

“This mass slaughter of birds has to stop,” said Dr. George Fenwick, President of American Bird Conservancy. “These shooting parties are the antithesis of everything the hunting community stands for here in the U.S. They don’t care about the impact they have on the environment, give nothing back in the way of permit fees to promote conservation efforts, and sometimes don’t even bother to collect the birds they shoot.”

In a letter to the French Ministry of Ecology – which has an oversight role on the island – ABC requested that it “…. take immediate measures to stop unregulated and unmonitored shooting on the island of Guadeloupe.” The letter also referenced “…the pressure that unregulated hunting has on shorebirds in this French department,” and demanded that “…the Ministry of Ecology put a stop to this barbaric practice in all French departments of (Latin) America and adopt practices that protect avian wildlife in this hemisphere.”

“Sometimes something good can come out of something bad and in this case, I believe the good that may emerge is that island conservation groups and regulators will begin to take a more critical view of how to more effectively manage hunting practices in their communities,” Dr. Fenwick said.

The shorebird tracking project is a collaborative effort between the Center for Conservation Biology, the Canadian Wildlife Service, The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program, and Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences. The project will ultimately track 20 migrating Whimbrels to better understand migratory pathways and locations that are critical for this declining species. The study has tracked Whimbrels for more than 185,000 miles (300,000 kilometers) since 2008.

According to ABC, shooting swamps are one of several threats birds face in the Caribbean. In addition, wetlands throughout the islands are vanishing due to increasing tourism development, agriculture and urban expansion. More than half of the wetlands that remain are seriously degraded by the cutting of mangroves and coastal forest, pollution, water mismanagement, and natural catastrophes such as droughts and hurricanes. As a result, many threatened birds that rely on these Caribbean wetlands are now declining.



The Whimbrel  - Numenius phaeopus - is one of the most widespread of the worlds curlews. It is a migratory species wintering on coasts in Africa, South America, South Asia and Australasia. Some migrating Whimbrels make a nonstop flight of 4,000 km (2,500 miles) from southern Canada or New England to South America. Four distinct subspecies of Whimbrel are recognized. One breeds in North America, one from Iceland to northwest Siberia, one in southern Russia, and one in eastern Siberia. Most southern African birds probably originate from eastern Russia and Siberia, arriving in the region from August-October and staying until about late March and April.


A large shorebird and its plumage is plain mottled-brown overall.  A long down-curved bill, longer in the female, long neck and legs. The crown is dark with a distinct light stripe in the middle. Juveniles are similar to adults, but the crown stripe less distinct, breast more buff, and with finer streaking on neck and chest.


The call is a rippling whistle, prolonged into a trill for the song. Its alarm call is a harsh squawk.


This species feeds by probing soft mud for small invertebrates and by picking small crabs and similar prey off the surface. The primary winter food of crab and the curve of the bill nicely matches the shape of fiddler crab burrows. Most of its foraging is done at night, probing and pecking in search of prey.


A shallow bowl on the ground, usually lined with leaves, usually concealed in low grass or heather. Three to five blue-green to brownish or buff eggs are laid. Both parents incubate the eggs for between 22 to 28 days. The chicks leave the nest soon after hatching and stay hidden among the surrounding vegetation. Both parents care for the chicks until they fledge in 35 to 40 days.

Conservation Status – Least Concern

Whimbrels are among the most abundant Curlews because of their extensive breeding range. Human impact is the biggest threat. Whimbrels are affected by habitat loss of nesting sites and refuelling staging posts along the migration route, and pollution of shorelines. In the early 1900s, they were hunted in the US as they migrated south. The slaughter had reduced populations there from thousands to a few hundred. Despite the fact that the population trend appears to be decreasing, the decline is not believed to be sufficiently rapid to approach the thresholds for Vulnerable.


Ask Aves Birding Tours/Safaris/Adventures to create a tour for you or book on one of the following Aves Birding Tour/Safaris/Adventures scheduled tours to see these striking birds: -

Aves Eastern Cape Birding Tour / Safari /Adventure.

Aves KZN Birding Tour / Safari / Adventure.

Aves Western Cape Birding Tour / Safari / Adventure.

Aves West Coast Birding Tour / Safari / Adventure.



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