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17. Whimbrel
7th May 2012


Just a simple day’s record of an encounter with a new element of Lough Allen’s wildlife. Whimbrels (Numenius phaeopus) are migratory birds akin to Curlews. Whilst the Curlew is resident in Ireland all year round, and breed in this locality, the Whimbrels only pass through Ireland on their way from the coasts of Africa to their breeding grounds in northern Europe. (Mainly Iceland in the case of the birds we see here.) They are not uncommon in Ireland but always nice to see. They probably regularly fly over Lough Allen on clear nights. You can listen out for their distinctive calls, a rapid piping sound traditionally said to be repeated 7 times!

This was the first occasion we saw them actively feeding on a Lough Allen shoreline, presumeably charging their batteries before resuming their journey northwards. They were busy and reasonably approachable so we hope you will enjoy these photographs.


Three Whimbrel in among ancient tree trunks...



Where and How?

At this time of the year we are anxious to see Lough Allen’s fish-eating ducks return. These Red-breasted Mergansers have been present in varying numbers over many years. They breed in among the rocks and tree stumps close to the shore. This year they are back but in smallers numbers, maybe due to our unseasonably cold weather to date.

So while looking for these we spotted a party of Whimbrels actively feeding on the shore the Mergansers had just left. As the top photo shows, the blend in well, and we might not have noticed them if they hadn’t been moving around so much.

Whimbrels are smaller in size than Curlews with a more slender body. There bill is also curved but shorter and thicker than the Curlews. It would only be about twice the length of the head.

They also have a fairly prominent eye stripe and two distinctive milk chocolate bands running across the top of the head — absent in the Curlew.





Stone Mad?

No, we don’t think so. This Whimbrel was darting towards the shore in pursuit of food. We tend to believe these birds may have been hungry. They probably weren’t on the lake long. We had not seen them before and have been engaged in fairly intensive surveying over the past couple of weeks. Also, a party of three was seen flying up the lake (and one or more resting on a rocky island) south of the Rossmore inlet at the north of Lough Allen where these individuals were recorded. It’s likely that all these sightings were the same group of Whimbrels.

They were actively feeding all the time we were there and were not much bothered by us. (These photographs were taken from a boat lying off the shoreline.) It seems likely that these birds may have just ‘dropped in’ during the course of their migration from southern Europe to Iceland, and were just using Lough Allen as a convenient feeding and resting place. Larger numbers have also been recorded from Sligo Bay during recent days.

We like the ‘mad’ appearance of this individual but attribute it merely to a combination of rushing around looking for food and keeping an eye on us out in the water? We don’t expect these individuals will remain long in Lough Allen. It will be interesting to see if other Whimbrels are seen passing through, or are heard calling overhead at nightime, as they migrate.





Food and Habitat.

The location is an inlet open to Lough Allen, quite deep in the centre but with a shallow connection to the main lake. This means that the area where the Whimbrel were consisted of wet grazing or mud banks prone to flooding with exposed ancient dead logs and tree trunks. (Bog Oak or, more accurately perhaps, Bog Pine.)

These ‘fossil trees’ do provide a habitat for many invertebrates to bask near to the water. Also the water around them is sheltered and a very common site for finding groups of the large blue-green alga, Nostoc pruniforme. The wet shore further up is normally a rich site for Spring flowers and associated bees and Butterflies. Unfortunately, today, due to very cold weather neither were on the wing, nor had flowers grown or opened and the place was (as you see it) mainly flowerless with stunted sedges and rushes trying to adapt to the cold Spring.

However, the Whimbrel were actively poking the vegetation and soft mud with their sturdy beaks and were presumeable finding many tasty waterborne invertebrates to fuel the next stage of their journey northwards.






Large bodies of water in their flight path may form natural staging posts for Whimbrel during the course of their migration. Their migration has been tracked through Britain and birds coming from France seem to head northwards into Iceland. Further tracking shows these birds typically migrating back to West Africa after their breeding season.

It appears that they tend to fly in fairly straight lines and staging posts where they rest and feed may be well established. We are curious to know if Lough Allen, or the small inlet at the north end of Lough Allen, is such a resting site. It may well be that there is a regluar passage of Whimbrel through this area each Spring? We simply do not know and we are surprised that we have not seen them here before. Any records from anyone else would be very welcome. (Contact Us.)

Lough Allen does seem to be a regular route for a variety of Wading Birds, Gulls, and Terns. Presumeably being a large body of water it may be of known value in providing food and shelter during a planned or enforced stop-over.

Most species of birds migrate at night and use the stars for navigation. On nights when migration has started and the sky suddenly become clouded over, birds may become disorientated and land at unusual places along their route to await better conditions. Maybe Lough Allen is just an emergency stop for this species and its more natural roost may be places like Donegal Bay and other inlets in north Donegal, from where the next stage of the journey to Iceland becomes more manageable.






This species breeds in sub-arctic zones of both the Old and New World with nesting occurring in Europe as far south as Scotland. Though it is unlikely that we will ever have these birds breeding in Ireland, we do have many other secies of plants and animals that do well in Lough Allen — but we always need to be watchful for change in conditions or practices that may affect our wildlife. There is currently a foam pollution problem in Lough Allen, which appears when the water is ruffled by even a slight breeze and magically disappears in long periods of calm.

The Whimbrel movement through Lough Allen seems to be more or less on time this year. Many other species of both plant and animal are being badly held back by the cold days and even colder nights as well as inclimate weather being experienced elsewhere in Europe this year.

The survey work we were engaged upon when we came across these interesting curiosities was mainly aimed at the Mergansers and Sandpipers. Mergansers are here in smallish numbers but not showing much sign of breeding. We suspect that this is simply due to cold. The night before these observations were made air temperature around the Lake slipped down as low as 0°C. This will affect not only the various species being studied but will prevent their food souces emerging or becoming profilic and birds (for example) are well aware of fish stocks in their habitat and will not breed until conditions are right.




Conservation in Lough Allen:

We have provided this account of Whimbrel in Lough Allen as we know many people are interested in the great array of Wild Life that occurs in our region.

Whimbrels are only passing through and what we do will not affect them. Thankfully they cannot be shot in this country.

Below are listed the many species that are, however, dependent on Lough Allen remaining healthy and vibrant for their survival. We believe a Conservation project is need for Lough Allen and will benefit People as much as Nature and we have long advocated a LIFE + proposal to this end.

Our specific species would include...
Red-breasted Merganser / Curlew / Sandpiper / 3 spp of Gulls / Common Tern / Pollan (Fish) / Spiranthes Orchid / Blue-eyed Grass and many other plants / Pine marten / Otter etc, etc..



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If you have any interesting records of animals or plants from the Lough Allen basin, we will be very pleased to reproduce them here.