Assisting with conservation of the Steppe Whimbrel
April 7, 2017
By Fletcher Smith, Center for Conservation Biology
The Steppe Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus alboaxillaris) is one of the least studied forms of migratory shorebirds on earth. The form was first described in 1921, and was thought extinct by the mid-1990s. A first “rediscovery” of Steppe Whimbrel was made in 1996 and 1997 on their breeding grounds near the Ural Mountain steppe habitats. No accepted sightings of the form were made on the wintering grounds until the 1950s. If ever a bird population was flying “under the radar,” this was it.
The recent rediscovery of Steppe Whimbrel made by Gary Allport of BirdLife International was of huge interest to the shorebird conservation community. Finding new species of birds, or rediscovering birds presumed extinct, quite frankly does not happen very often. Gary found a likely candidate for the form within a flock of nominate race Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus phaeopus), and examination of photographs taken of the bird showed clear indications that one whimbrel in the flock was of the Steppe form. A subsequent second Steppe Whimbrel was found nearby on the same stretch of beach, and both records were well documented.
You simply cannot help but wonder about the status of this whimbrel. So few records exist of the Steppe form that it is safe to say the population must be low, but what that means exactly is unknown. The population was likely always low compared to the nominate race (N. p. phaeopus) that breeds in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of Europe and Russia, and there is evidence for a range contraction and population reduction of the Steppe form. One can only hope that through dedicated conservation and protection that this form will persist and the population will rise, rather than going the way of other Numenius species that winked out and are presumed extinct at this point.
A next step in conservation of the Steppe Whimbrel is to find out where they breed and where they stop in migration. Conservationists also need to know about the breeding population and the breeding range, and the only way to answer large scale questions is through satellite tracking. In February 2017 CCB attempted to capture and deploy a satellite tag on one of the Steppe Whimbrel in Mozambique. We were unsuccessful in tracking the bird, and though the primary goals were not met during the expedition, we are fully committed to assisting in tagging and tracking a Steppe Whimbrel from wintering grounds to breeding grounds next winter. Reports have been trickling in to Gary from other sites in East Africa, and there is reason to believe that more than just a few exist.
Gary Allport and family were excellent hosts during the expedition, Phil Atkinson of the British Trust for Ornithology helped with all aspects leading up to the capture attempt, and the African Bird Club assisted with logistical support.