Everyone knows the cuckoo’s call and country people, over the age of 60, remember the rasping of the corncrake, which kept them awake at night when they were children. Most people have only a hazy notion of what these birds look like. But there’s another, largely unknown, vocalist around at this time of year. If you live near the coast, listen for a shrill, piping call coming from the sky; it’s the voice of the ‘maybird’, a wader that stops here briefly when migrating northwards in late April or May. Unlike those of the cuckoo and corncrake, maybird numbers are not falling and the bird isn’t threatened. Nor is it shy. People often see this visitor, but they think it’s a common or garden curlew, not worth a second glance.
This nomad, whose official name is the ‘whimbrel’, is also known as the ‘seven whistler’. A single, high-pitched, ‘tittering-note’ is repeated, usually seven times, in quick succession, like somebody hitting a high key on the piano, staccato fashion. Calling helps the birds keep in contact with each other in flight. It’s an evocative sound. Whimbrels are excellent vocalists, with many calls and a bubbling, curlew-like song in their repertoire. Most of these are uttered on the breeding grounds. The ‘tittering’ call is the only one we regularly hear in Ireland.
The stop-over is brief; Ireland is just a petrol station and coffee shop as far as this world-traveller is concerned; a colour-ringed bird seen in Devon was on its breeding grounds in Shetland four days later. The occasional straggler takes a shine to us, staying on here for the winter, but almost all maybirds have gone north by June.
The whimbrel is smaller than its cousin, the curlew, which it closely resembles. Both waders are speckled brown and have long, downward-curving bills. They share a name in Irish; ‘crotach’ means ‘the hunched one’; the new-moon-shaped bill exaggerates a crouching profile. A pale patch on the whimbrel’s head is sandwiched between two, thick, dark streaks. The resulting black ‘eyebrows’, absent in the curlew, are the distinctive ‘field mark’ but you have to be close to the bird to see them.
Curlews and whimbrels may resemble each other but their characters and lifestyles are radically different. It’s as though, long ago, two members of a primitive, curlew-like family were born with different dispositions, one vigilant and cautious, the other adventurous and restless. The curlew is the cautious one, timid and set in its ways. Irish curlews don’t even go abroad for holidays. They breed on inland bogs and wet farmland, moving only as far as the coast for the winter. Creatures of habit, they frequent the same stretch of shoreline year after year, a virtual winter territory, and return to the same nest site. We get an influx of curlews from abroad in the autumn, but the visitors seem to come only from Scotland or the north of England with, perhaps, a few precocious Scandinavians.
The whimbrel, in contrast, is the prodigal son of the family. One of the world’s great travellers, individuals from Europe and Asia visit wetlands all over Africa and the islands of the Indian Ocean. I have seen whimbrels in Mauritius, and on a visit to Cape Town, last August, I found some feeding in city gardens. The birds were so tame, I could see the definitive head-stripes without the aid of binoculars.
Most whimbrels passing through Ireland breed in Iceland. A few will opt for a site closer to home; four to five hundred pairs nest in Shetland. The nearest ones to us will be in the Hebrides or the north of mainland Scotland. Others don’t settle down until they reach Scandinavia or Siberia. By mid July, the eggs will have hatched. Non-breeders and failed nesters start their journey southwards then, but adults and their newly-fledged youngsters won’t follow until September. They will drop in here on their way.
According to the Migration Atlas, 2,100 whimbrels had been ringed in the British and Irish ringing scheme by 2002. Only 45 of these rings were found again, among them 13 placed on chicks in Shetland. One of them turned up in Wexford.