Wednesday, April 3, 2019



If you don't know me, Hi, I'm Tim Mccarthy and along with Wayne Renaud I head up the annual Whimbrel watch at Whimbrel Point, Sam Smith Park. Last May there were more than 3 times the previous highest count at the Park so I think this year we are going to need quite a few more recorders. Not just folks who show up on May 24th, the peak day for a few hours social gathering, but somebody who's going to stay out there for half a day and submit their totals when through, from May 18 when the count starts until May 31 when the birds have generaly all gone through. If I can get enough of a response to my mailings I'll allocate time to interested parties kind of like the Piping Plover watch at Hanlan's Point last summer.

So please read and answer let me know what you think and pass this information along to as many people as you think may be interested. i have included below my draft for a presentation on Whimbrels for FOSS  a couple of years back. I've attempted to bring it up to date for you...  

Tim can be contacted at

Oct 20,2016

Hudsonian Curlew. Numeneus Phaeopus. Whimbrel.

The Flying Friends of Sam Smith [ 1 ]

Note: These are the notes for a speech I delivered at a meeting for the Friends of Sam Smith. Unfortunately, there is no longer an accompanying collection of slides to go with it, but I'm sure you'll get the message. Pretty much wherever you see an insertes number, that's where I cued myself to show a new slide. you can track down most of these pictures and get a handle on the wonderful World of Whimbrels just by Googling "Whimbrels" when we're done. The notes of course, were made before the incredible experiences of May 2018 where Whimbrels were flying all over the place and landing right at out feet in big numbers. The purpose of this repeat performance is to get you to volunteer for half-day stints recording the passage of Whimbrels over Sam Smith Park just in case it happens again this May.

I guess by now most of you are somewhat aquainted with our friends, the Whimbrels. [ 2 ]We Whimbrel watchers have always suspected there was something pretty special going on out there at Whimbrel Point but its only been recently discovered just how special that  is and how important our park is to the Whimbrels. [3  ] A few years ago we at the Toronto Ornithological Club were contacted by Fletcher Smith, a research biologist with the Centre for Conservation Biology at the William and Mary University in Williamsburg, Virginia. They were starting a program of Whimbrel study at the time which ultimately included  capturing a few of the birds from the Delmarva marshes where they stage on their northward migration. Some birds were given conspicuous leg bands by Fletcher and his team [4  ] and a few were fitted with radio-satellite tracking devices.  [ 5 ] What they discovered gave them a surprise. They discovered that Whimbrels love Toronto, particularly Sam Smith Park.  It seems that more birds fly over the Park on their spring migration to the subarctic breeding grounds than any where else. [ 6  ] There is a collection of articles and interesting historical statistics available on the Toronto Ornithological club's website,, [7 ] compiled by Wayne Renaud who is one of my Birdy Buddies and a heck of a scientist. You will be able to see from years of observation by Wayne and some of the folks he interviewed just how few Whimbrels were seen at various locations around the Great Lakes during their spring migration, and how many of them, in contrast, were seen around Sam Smith Park and back 25 years or so, during the construction of the Park, how many actually landed on the bare soil of the new park. On May 24th, 1992 Jerry Guild and Beth Jefferson counted hundreds of birds resting on the ground and a total , the highest ever, of over 5000 passing through. This compares with 3319 we  counted flying over the Park in the Spring of 2017. ( Update- For the season of 2018 had over 10,000 and we're still trying to figure that one out.)  [ 8 ]

So Fletcher gave us the heads up and ever since 2009, Don Barnett (R.I.P.), Jean Iron, Wayne Renaud and I have sat out on Whimbrel Point from May 20 to May 30 and counted Whimbrels.

Perhaps a little background on Numeneus Phaeopus would be worthwhile. Whimbrels are Charadriiforms, or Sandpipers. Their range is global, with several more or less distinct races existing. The total population would not exceed 1.5 million and is probably much smaller than that. Our Eastern race, the ones who love Sam Smith, probably number no more than 50,000, half of what they were a few decades ago, the western race slightly more. Those numbers have been declining in the last few decades due to loss of habitat, mostly in their wintering grounds, [ 9 ] to the point where they are on watch for the endangered species list. They spend the winter sort of spread along the coast of the southern Atlantic States and pretty much all around coastal Central and South America. Their Northern breeding grounds on the Western Hemisphere consist of a divided band around the sub-arctic. [ 10 ]  See the big gap in the middle? That's where the Eskimo Curlew used to breed. The reason that Whimbrels have not spread out to fill that gap is that there aren't enough of them left.

This map doesn't show the northbound migration route very well so i will point it out here and we'll see it in detail in a minute. On the way back, the whimbrels don't travel in flocks, but split up and go all over the place, but especially down the Eastern and Western Seaboards.  The Eastern contingent raises heck with the Blueberry growers in Nova Scotia because, well, they eat blueberries.

I'm afraid this map is rather smudgy  [  12 ] but you can see the tracks taken by all the radio collared birds (presumably traveling with their flocks. And I used to think it was a solid line. Just look at the complexity.  The reason why there are so many wandering tracks is that the birds are spread out over very large and very many staging areas.

And here is a plot of one bird, named Hope,  [ 13 ] who just seemed to be a wanderer taken over a three year period until somebody shot her.

Easch Spring the Whimbrels gather in the marshes of Delmarva. Don't know that one? its a marvelous mix of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia as those 3 states have territory in the area. Its a pretty inaccessible piece of land with a lot of mudflats where the Whimbrels gorge themselves on fiddler crabs. Those long honkin' bills can reach down into the mud and pull up the tasty little critters. There is actually a little  hinge at the end of the bill which enables it to open under mud and get hold of the prey. When the crab comes out, the bird gives it a shake so the claw he's holding breaks off. Then he picks the crab up by the other claw and shakes it off too. 

Eventually the crab's legless body gets gobbled. I know if you've been paying attention, somebody's going to ask does the Whimbrel then go around and pick up all the discarded legs ?  My answer is I don't know. When mid May comes around the birds are fed up and getting restless. By May 20th the big flocks begin to lift off and head for James Bay [ 14 ].Via Sam Smith Park, of course. The kids doing the watch down there get on the email and say Here they come. Now the trip from Delmarva to here should take about 9 hours when everything is favourable so if they lift off from there  at sunset and fly all night we should start seeing them coming around sunrise. And mostly thats what happens. But what if they get blown off course or get forced down by a storm. Or what if they have as yet undiscovered resting spots that they use regularly? That, plus the fact that many Whimbrels kind of loiter around once they get to the Sam Smith shore means they can be seen off and on all day. [15  ]

When the flocks start coming it is a soul-stirring sight. The birds call continuously and their voices can be heard even when the flocks themselves are not in sight. The sound , and forgive me if I wax poetical, is one of the wildest on earth. If you are fortunate enough to experience it It will make your hair stand on end. It is the embodyment of wild freedom and here today gone tomorrow. The French name for Whimbrel, incidentally is Courlis Courlieu which just about mimics their call. Maybe they are speaking French.

So for quite a few years the flocks would appear more or less on time. Some would be really high up and would appear to fly right through, not to be seen touching down again until James Bay.

That, by the way is quite an achievement - a non-stop flight of 1300 km or so.

But as often as not, a flock numbering anywhere from a few birds to 3 or 4 hundred would come in low, calling and circling around. Many times we thought they were trying to land but each time would fly back up again. They often would disappear to the West, only to come back again later and do more circling. Often the flock would be larger by up to 30 birds .

This behaviour seems counter-productive for a bird which does not eat during migration and therefore has limited energy resources. So why do they act this way? I think they are very concerned with finding stragglers, be they in small flights or resting on the rocks.

The advantages to being in a flock are many. 1.Getting an optimum number of birds to the feeding and breeding grounds together, they can start breeding right away without spending time looking for a mate, and time is short, to be sure. 2.Being safer from predators both aerial and terrestrial due to many eyes and ears and the confusion of large numbers, 3.The advantage of weaker flyers being able to slip-stream the stronger ones  to save total energy in a flock, 4. The ability for less experienced individuals to learn from older, more knowledgeable ones, 5.The chance for unmated birds to be exposed to potential mates.

So birds who had maybe fallen behind or stopped for a rest as they may not have been in top shape,or started from a different staging place get picked up by the next big flock. [ 16 ]

We know they used to land in large numbers from records from our own observations in the Park. But they like open spaces and the Park has grown up. They are afraid of dogs, as the Arctic Fox is their main enemy on the breeding grounds and the Park is full of dogs running free.

The birds are extremely conservative in habits. They have to be, as most who deviate from the norm would perish and there are not many left to fill in the gaps.

Then 4 years ago something strange happened.

A small flock circled low and landed down at the southwest tip. They stayed for about 15 minutes until somebody came by with a dog.

The following spring 73 of them landed on the little point just South of Whimbrel point. It was a weekday afternoon, the birds looked tired and there were few dogs. We managed to keep dogs away by appealing to their owners to give the resting birds a wide berth. Most people were amazed at the first Whimbrels they'd ever seen and totally agreed to rein in the dog.

I found that encouraging as it means that people will buy into the Whimbrel thing even if they are not bird people but - dog people. I vowed to do more about that next year.

[ 17 ]

Next year they landed again, this time right at our feet on Whimbrel Point and we were ready for the dog walkers.

If you are a developer or a politician or just a selfish dog owner you may be tempted to ask why is it so important to let Whimbrels land at Sam Smith Park? Well, its because they don't have any place else to land. Is the main population of Whimbrels in general going to suffer if a few individuals don't make it to the breeding ground? The answer to that, I feel , is most emphatically yes. The birds who drop out or fall behind perhaps having taken a slightly different route may be remnants of populations who once long ago employed slightly different techniques to get to the breeding grounds. They probably occupied a slightly different area when they arrived there. And as a result of all this, their genetic material became slightly distict. Now that the overall population has shrunk, the maintenance of genetic diversity is of paramount importance for the ongoing health of the whole species! And therefore it is very important for the "oddballs" to stay with the herd. The birds themselves are good at looking after the stragglers though they don't know why they do it. its just in their culture.

Now I said before that the birds flying around like they were looking to land had noplace else to go.I was saving this one for the climax.

Every time the Whimbrels flew low over us and disappeared to the West, it seemed to me that many of them eventually returned, but usually after an inordinately long time. I felt that they were landing somewhere else to the west of us. So on 24th May 2014 some of us went and sat at the end of the pier at Marie Curtis Park. It wasn't long before the sky was filled with hundreds of Whimbrels. Small flocks even flew up Etobicoke creek as though following an old faint trail but they soon came back to join the others again.I thought for sure that some would land on the rocks below the Filtration Plant.  [18  ] But none of them did.

So last year I persuaded an accomplice who, for the sake of anonymity shall be referred to as "Mr.Smith" to accompany me on a clandestine reconnaisance. We shouldered our telescopes and slipped through the fence at the "Lakeview Lands"which is where up until a few years ago the Lakeview coal generation plant stood. The land has lain fallow for several years, fenced off from everything. A short pleasant walk brought us to the old pier which consisted on our side of 3 sunken ship hulks [19 ].  Mr. Smith had an appointment to keep so he departed but I stayed on. After a while the Whimbrels came and circled over the pier. Then after each round a few would drop down until there were 50 or more all lined up on the gunwhale.[20  ]

I had my answer.

Now since then I have tried to bring the urgency of this to the attention of the Credit Valley Conservation Authority. The planners for this future development have promised to set something aside for Whimbrels as they have naturalists on their stall who understand the Whimbrels' needs.

They are going to obviously do a lot of work there sometime soon. What if that work included building a rocky or concrete island just offshore from where the Whimbrels landed? It would be inaccessible to dogs and men but a drawing card for birds.(Note; As of 2019 the developers of the "Lakeview Lands" have made plans to include habitat for Whimbrels to rest. Hurray for them we sure hope their plans work out!)

Next Spring I plan to bring our signs (dogs off) out to Whimbrel Point again. I also want to try and get a full time Animal Control person out on the spit May 22 to 24th, which is Whimbrel prime time.

And when I find the right ear, perhaps some of you can help, I intend to propose construction of another bird island in the little bay just south of Whimbrel Point.

And what about the sudden change in the birds' behaviour? Why have they begun landing at our feet and resting there? Has there been a change in their culture? Is it suddenly kind of ok for some reason to take a bit of a chance with humans and their dogs?

Are we watching, framed against a tableau of ever increasing speed of change in the environment a change in the actual speed of evolution?

Whatever it is that is going on up there in Whimbrel country we need to take serious note of it. Because there appears to have been, for whatever reason, a change in behaviour,  and if we are to give that change a chance of success, we must no longer be content with just watching, tracking and keeping count of this species. We must wade in, right here in our own back yard, and actively protect them.

Tim Mccarthy, Co-ordinator  of the Fred Bodsworth Memorial Whimbrel Watch, Sam Smith Park on behalf of the Toronto Ornithological Club.

1 comment:

Brian said...

For anyone interested in seeing the migration routes taken by Whimbrels, the following link is quite detailed. If you click on HOPE you will see her travels over three years.