Title Image: Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris (right) probable male, and nominate phaeopus (left) Maputo, Mozambique, February 2016. Photo by Callan Cohen.
By Gary Allport (with photos and additional information from Callan Cohen)
In early February 2016, Ross Hughes (RH) and I found a group of 12 Eurasian Curlews Numenius arquata in Maputo, only our second record of the species in more than five years of birding in Mozambique. They were of the East Asian race orientalis and most had huge bills, but of interest were two much smaller, shorter-billed birds amongst them. We were sure these smaller birds were Eurasian Curlews but we checked-in with staff of BirdLife Partners running the project to search for the Slender-billed Curlew Numenius tenuirostris in order to make sure, and we also looked at Birding Frontiers remembering a discussion on a possible orientalis in the UK and Dave Gandy’s nice pics from Bangkok. Richard Porter sent me a copy of a recent paper on Slender-billed Curlew from BB by Corso et al. (2014), which had lots of details about short-billed, male orientalis European Curlews which made the identity of the birds in Maputo very clear; they were indeed male orientalis.
Part of a flock of 12 Eurasian Curlews Numenius arquata of the eastern race orientalis. Note the clean white underwings and long bills. One of two smaller, relatively shorter-billed birds bottom left. Salina Zacharias, Matola, Mozambique. January 2016. Photo by Gary Allport.
However, that BB paper also flagged other little known and potentially confusing forms of both Eurasian Curlew and Common Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus found in the Asian steppes. One bird I had never heard of was Steppe Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus alboaxillaris nicely illustrated in the article by Szabolcs Kókay, showing pure white underwings and axillaries. It was clearly very little known and I was geekily picking through the references when I found to my great surprise that the type specimen of Steppe Whimbrel was collected in Mozambique! I did a quick post online, asking if anyone knew anything about this bird or had photos of flocks of Whimbrel from Mozambique that I could check; unsurprisingly I got nothing back. I decided to repost with a nice photo of a Whimbrel to attract more peoples’ attention but I found I had no good images of the species myself. Two days later I happened upon a group of about ten Whimbrel whilst on the way to the shops, so I stopped the car, ran onto the beach took some pictures without really looking at the birds (I had my camera but no binocs with me) jumped back in the car and went to the supermarket. That evening I got round to social media and idly put the memory card in the computer – and you can guess what’s coming next – there was a perfect Steppe Whimbrel. I couldn’t quite believe it but I went through the rest of the shots and all the others were of normal phaeopus race. This bird was outstanding with clean white underwings and rump, larger in size and with greyer, cleaner colouration. I posted it online and sent it to my Slender-billed Curlew colleagues, and in the next 24 hours my inbox exploded. When I was finally able to get back down to the beach two days later with Ross Hughes, to our amazement we found another one – two together.
Some quick research showed that Steppe Whimbrel has always been little known. It was described in 1921 based on four specimens from coastal East and South-eastern Africa (Lowe 1921) with a further three records in Africa since then, the last in southern Tanzania in 1965. In the 1960s it emerged (in the west) that there were records from the breeding areas of Kazakhstan and Russia going back to the mid-19th century (by Eversmann), but the last was seen in 1974, and it was declared extinct by a Russian expert in 1994. However, it was re-found in 1997, a tiny breeding population of six pairs in the Russian steppes at the south end of the Urals (Morozov 2000). There were also a small number of possible sightings in the Caspian Sea area but they’ve not been seen since. The Convention on Migratory Species estimated the global population at 100 birds or fewer (CMS 2014).
Key identification features were given by Lowe (1921) in the type description:
“axillaries, under-wing coverts and undertail coverts were pure white. The back and rump were also pure white with no hidden spots as in Numenius phaeopus phaeopus, while the fore neck and upper pectoral region were marked with thin streaks of brown, not so numerous nor extending so far down the breast and flanks as in typical N. phaeopus.”
Callan Cohen was the only birder to get on a plane and trek over to Maputo (from Cape Town) to see the birds and we spent three days looking at both of the Steppe Whimbrels, trying to figure out what these birds really are, looking at the variability in other Whimbrels and getting as much in-the-field information gleaned as possible. Callan got a series of fantastic photos which greatly aided the analyses and we were able to pin-down the feeding territory of one bird, a foundation for further ad hoc ecological studies.
We found that the two birds in Maputo were similar to N. p. phaeopus, with which they could be compared directly, but had a clean white belly and vent, lacking any dark lanceolate streaking or chevrons on the vent and undertail-coverts; the upperparts were colder and paler greyish brown. The first individual was larger, longer- and broader-winged than the second, and not vocal; it was tentatively sexed as a female. It was also less strikingly plumaged, with more brownish tones than the second bird, but had a primary extension well beyond the tail—a feature so far only found in this individual bird. The second individual was paler and greyer than most Whimbrels present, smaller and shorter winged than the female, and very vocal and aggressive, especially later in the time it was on the beach in Maputo; it was tentatively sexed as a male.
Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris probable female, Maputo Mozambique, February 2016. Note clean white underparts with no streaks or chevrons on the flanks behind the legs, clean cold greyish brown colouration and long primary projection beyond the tail. Photo by Gary Allport
Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris probable male, Maputo, Mozambique, February 2016. Male in group of phaeopus (third from right). Note greyer colouration and narrow breast streaking forming pectoral band higher up the breast. Photo by Gary Allport
Based mostly on Callan’s photographs, and our observations in the field the following features were identified as separating the two alboaxillaris from nominate phaeopus (presumed adults in freshly moulted plumage):
1. Axillaries and underwing initially appeared pure white, but in photographs both birds had fine blackish shaft-streaks over the terminal 15% of the length of the axillaries. The underwing primary-coverts were finely barred grey. The axillaries in nominate phaeopus are barred blackish brown and white (see first photo).
Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris probable female, Maputo, Mozambique, February 2016, showing white underwing with narrow shaft streaks towards the tips of the axillaries. Photo by Gary Allport
Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris probable male, Maputo, Mozambique, February 2016, showing white underwing and clean grey colouration. Photo by Callan Cohen.
2. Upper rump and lower back clean white, although there was a suggestion of darker centres at the base of the white back feathers in some photographs. The lower rump showed some narrow dark streak-centred feathers, which varied in visibility, but close examination of photographs showed up to three on the female and eight on the male. The uppertail-coverts were ‘laddered’ with clean black-and-white bars, and differed from the lower rump feathers (the two have been confused in some texts). The phaeopus showed shaft-streaks on the upper rump and many lanceolate shaft-streaks and chevrons on the lower rump, with broader black bars on the upper tail-coverts and normally with a brownish wash.
Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris probable male, Maputo, Mozambique, February 2016, showing white rump with relatively fine streaking on lower rump and tail pattern with clean white and pale-greyish white outers laddered black with contrasting darker centre tail. There is evidence that the centre four tail feathers are of a different age to the rest of the tail, being less abraded than the adjacent tail tips on the right hand side of the bird and differently shaped. Photo by Ross Hughes.
Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris (right) probable female, and nominate phaeopus (left) Maputo, Mozambique, February 2016. Note differences in size, structure, rump and tail patterns. Steppe Whimbrel shows ‘tubby’ shape (possibly carrying a greater fat load in order to depart earlier than phaeopus? But see pics of birds returning in August, below, presumably lean and some of which also show the tubby shape), pure white rump with minor streaking on lower rump, pale tail with slightly darker centres.
3. Outer tail feathers were clean white in the male and greyish white (with a buff wash in some lights) tipped white in the female; both were ‘laddered’ with narrow black bars on both webs over their entire length. The tail was very pale in both birds but showed contrast between the darker central rectrices (patterned with pale grey and black ‘laddering’) and paler outer feathers. In contrast, most phaeopus had pale- to mid-brown tails, barred black and relatively uniform across the tail span. Some phaeopus had a pale outer web to the basal third of the outermost tail feathers.
4. The outer web of the fifth primary (from the innermost) had five clean pale greyish-brown spots, which reached the outermost edge of the web. No phaeopus exhibited this feature, although a few had similar but very faint barring.
5. The breast was finely streaked blackish brown on a clean white or greyish-white background, the streaking ending in a pectoral band higher up the breast than in many, although not all, phaeopus.
6. Both alboaxillaris appeared more bulky – ‘tubby’ – than nominate phaeopus, and had noticeably broader and longer wings in flight, with longer secondaries and more paddle-shaped primaries. At rest, the primaries extended beyond the tail in the female.
Inspection of the type series in the Natural History Museum, Tring (NHMUK), which had been exhibited by Lowe in 1921, revealed that only one of the four specimens has a completely unstreaked rump, the other three exhibit minor streaking on the lower rump, similar to the birds in Maputo, which would probably be invisible in the field but is evident in good-quality digital images. C. S. Roselaar (in Cramp & Simmons 1983: 496) gave the most detailed description of the diagnostic features, which fit very well with the characters observed in the birds in Maputo. Both birds also matched illustrations of alboaxillaris in Corso et al. (2014). Note that Steppe Whimbrel identification will be covered in the new Chamberlain’s Waders guide to Southern Africa by the fabulous artist/author Faansie Peacock . An example of the plates, based on the birds in Maputo, is here. The full account of the finding is accepted for publication in the next issue of the Bulletin of the African Bird Club (Allport 2017). The birds were aged as adults based on their fresh plumage but the moult sequence of Whimbrel is very poorly known so this is a tentative conclusion. The female was last observed in Maputo on 28 February (by Ross Hughes) and the male on 24 March. They were seen by a small number of observers and well photographed.
There are all sorts of questions about Steppe Whimbrel – species limits, taxonomy, distribution and numbers – which we won’t cover at length here but the bottom line is we need to find more of them if we are to understand this bird properly.
We have checked all the Whimbrels in the NHMUK and Durban Museum (including the only two known alboaxillaris from South Africa collected in Durban Bay, Dec. 1961 [Allport & Allan 2016]), finding no new birds. But a new record of alboaxillaris was ‘found’ in the public gallery of the Natural History Museum in Maputo (Allport et al. 2016), by climbing into the diorama when a piece of glass was removed for maintenance and lifting the wings of the dusty, old stuffed and mounted birds. There may well be others in museum collections.
The first article with details of the finding was published in ‘African Birdlife’ magazine and in September 2016 we published a second article outlining thoughts on finding Steppe Whimbrel in the boreal winter in southern Africa.
Searches for returning birds in Southern Africa began in August 2016 and quickly led to a series of ‘candidate’ alboaxillaris at the type locality in Inhambane, Mozambique (by GA, Gary Rowan, Maans Booysen and Niall Perrins – see the Birds Mozambique Facebook page and images below) involving a minimum of four and up to seven birds in August to October. One bird was seen on one day in August in Maputo. Two birds were found at Richard’s Bay, South Africa in October by Patrick Rollinson (see SA Rare Birds Facebook page and below). Unfortunately none of these was seen and photographed well enough to be certain of the identification, bearing in mind how poorly known the taxon is. Photos of some of these birds are below.
The first returning ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrel found in Inhambane, Mozambique 2nd August 2016. Note white axillaries/underwings, larger wings, tubby shape, narrow band of flank barring and grey face. The rump and tail look pale but the image is not good enough to be certain. Photo by Gary Allport.
The second ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrel (centre) found by Gary Rowan and Maans Booysen, Inhambane, Mozambique 12th August 2016. Note white underwings, larger wings, tubby shape, much reduced flank barring and grey face. The rump and tail look pale. Possibly same bird as 2nd August; but at least three other ‘candidate’ birds photographed around that date but this is the best image. Photo by Maans Booysen.
Third ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrel found by Gary Rowan, Inhambane, Mozambique, 15thAugust 2016. Note white underwings, white axillaries with fine terminal shaft streaks (the only ‘candidate’ returning Steppe Whimbrel photographed well-enough to see this feature), larger wings, much reduced flank barring and paler face. Photo by Gary Rowan.
First of three shots of fourth ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrel (lower), Maputo, Mozambique, 19th August 2016 (one day only). Note white axillaries and underwing. Flight shots were under-exposed/ taken against the light and adjusted for brightness so plumage tones are not accurate. But noting apparent pale fringes to upperwing coverts, this bird might be a juvenile? Note white axillaries and reduced flank barring. Photo by Gary Allport.
Second of three shots of fourth ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrel (upper bird) Maputo, Mozambique, 19th August 2016. Note pale rump and tail. Flight shots were under-exposed/ taken against the light and adjusted for brightness so plumage tones are not accurate. This bird appears not to have barring on the outer web of the fifth outermost primary. Photo by Gary Allport.
Last of three shots of fourth ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrel (second from right) Maputo, Mozambique, 19th August 2016. Several badly exposed shots of candidate Steppe Whimbrels (of which I have many) show apparent pale underside to the primaries and contrasting dark, blackish, primary tips, which is not apparent in close-up, well-focussed shots. The same is true when viewing birds with the naked eye and also through a camera viewfinder – sometimes they really stand out. Note that the contrasting underwing pattern is a very different shape to that of a Slender-billed Curlew, which has a darker panel on the full length of the outermost primaries forming a dark bar along the leading edge of the underwing. See Figure 2. By Szabolcs Kókay in Corso et al. (2014). Photo by Gary Allport.
Fifth ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrel found Inhambane, Mozambique, 30th August 2016; one of four photographed that day. Note white axillaries, reduced flank barring and greyer/paler face. Photo by Gary Allport.
Two ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrels, Inhambane, Mozambique 13th October 2016. These two birds accompanied each other. Note tubby shape and big wings. Possibly the first bird from early August (top)? Photos by Gary Allport.
One of two ‘candidate’ Steppe Whimbrels found by Patrick Rollinson at Richard’s Bay, South Africa, 22nd October 2016. Note clean greyish tone, white axillaries and underwing (partly visible), pale tail with darker centres, apparently pure white rump, pale barring on the outer web of the fifth outermost primary, greyish breast and contrastingly paler face. This is a very strong candidate Steppe Whimbrel. There are only two previous records in SA, both collected on the same day in December 1961 in Durban Bay (skins in Durban Museum DNSM). Photo by Patrick Rollinson.
The sequence of photos of candidate Steppe Whimbrels returning to southern Africa in August-October 2016 show that abraded birds do look quite different. In particular the flank bar is less distinct than both the two birds in Maputo in February and nominate phaeopus Whimbrel alongside. They all show a greyish face, contrasting with the mostly browner breast, in some cases markedly so. Some nominate phaeopus Whimbrel also show this feature so the extent to which it is a distinctive character is yet to be sorted out.
Anyone reading this is encouraged to check their photos and/or look for Steppe Whimbrels, especially in the range from central Asia, through the Middle East and throughout Eastern and Southern Africa.
This work is ongoing and I am trying to keep all the publications up to date on my Research Gate page and sightings are posted to the Birds Mozambique and SA Rare Birds Facebook pages.
Thanks to Callan Cohen for considerable expert discussion and to Gary Rowan, Maans Booysen, Niall Perrins and Patrick Rollinson for their enthusiasm for finding new birds and for use of their photos herein.
Allport, G. 2017. Steppe Whimbrels Numenius phaeopus alboaxillaris at Maputo, Mozambique, in February–March 2016, with a review of the status of the taxon. Bull. Afr. Bird Club 24(1): xx-xx
Allport, G. 2016. A step back in time. African Birdlife 4(4): 10-11
Allport, G. A. & Allan, D. 2016. A re-examination of two specimens of Steppe Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus alboaxillaris Lowe, 1921 in the Durban Natural Science Museum. Durban Nat. Sci. Mus. Novit. 39: 41-45
Allport, G. A., Bento, C., Carvalho, M. & Guissamulo, A. 2016. Specimen of Steppe Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus alboaxillaris (Lowe, 1921) in the collection of the Museu de Historia Natural, Maputo. Biodiversity Observations 7.24: 1-5.
Allport, G. & Cohen, C. 2016. Finding Steppe Whimbrel: discovery and identification in southern Africa. African Birdlife 4(6):48-54
Convention on Migratory Species (CMS). 2014. Conservation statements for Numeniini species. UNEP/CMS/COP11 information documents (28 October 2014). www.cms.int/en/document/conservation-statements-numeniini-species.
Corso, A., Jansen, J. J. F. J. & Kókay, S. 2014. A review of the identification criteria and variability of the Slender-billed Curlew. Br. Birds 107: 339–370.
Cramp, S. & Simmons, K. E. L. (eds.) 1983. The Birds of the Western Palearctic. Vol. 3. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Lowe, P. R. 1921. [Exhibition and description of a new subspecies of Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus alboaxillaris) from Portuguese East Africa.] Bull. Br. Ornithol. Cl. 41: 110.
Morozov, V. V. 2000. Current status of the southern subspecies of the Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus alboaxillaris (Lowe 1921) in Russia and Kazakhstan. Wader Study Group Bull. 92: 30–37.
Title Image: Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris (right) probable male, and nominate phaeopus (left) Maputo, Mozambique, February 2016. Photo by Callan Cohen.