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Finding Steppe Whimbrel: discovery and identification in southern Africa.



Two Steppe Whimbrels Numenius phaeopus alboaxillaris were found in Maputo, Mozambique in February 2016. This article outlines field identification characters for alboaxillaris based on those two birds and reference to museum specimens, gives advice on techniques for searching (especially DSLR photography) and suggests potential locations for finding more Steppe Whimbrels in the forthcoming austral summer.
steppe whimbrel
TEXT Gary allport & callan cohen
PHOTOGRAPHS callan cohen
f inding
IN FEBRUARY 2016 two Steppe Whimbrels
Numenius phaeopus alboaxillaris
were found
in Maputo, Mozambique, drawing attention to
this little-known bird that was once thought
to be extinct. Attention is now focused on
finding birds returning this summer.
Steppe Whimbrel is considered to be a subspecies of
Whimbrel but the recent nding of two in Maputo (All-
port 2016a) and their distinctiveness in the eld has led
to a global taxonomy project that is re-examining the
Whimbrel and its close relatives. ere are indications
that alboaxillaris is more than ‘just’ a subspecies, but it is
so little known that it is hard to draw denite conclusions
without more records to go on. Either way, it’s one of the
rarest wader taxa in the world. ats one reason why it is
important to look for more birds in southern Africa this
summer and why it would be such an exciting nd.
how to find a steppe whimbrel
When the two Steppe Whimbrels were found in Maputo
among a group of 30 Whimbrels, it seemed possible that
there might be a similar proportion of alboaxillaris in big-
ger ocks of Whimbrels nearby. But 650 Whimbrels were
subsequently photographed well enough to be sure of the
subspecies without nding even a possible alboaxillaris.
ese birds are without doubt rare and it will take some
eort to nd more.
ere are several ways to focus the search and we have the
perfect tool for identication: digital photography, which
allows us to capture shots of the critical features of the un-
derwing, rump and underparts. With a well-informed and
well-armed contingent of searchers, the chase is on!
The first Steppe Whimbrel found
in Maputo in February 2016 was
thought to be a female as she was
larger and very long-winged. Note
the wing tip (primaries) extending
well beyond the tail tip.
right All other races of Common
Whimbrel have wings that are
shorter than the tail. These are
two adult nominate phaeopus in
Maputo in February 2016.
Discovery and identification
in southern Africa
50 51
AFRICAN birdlife SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2016 steppe whimbrel
Don’t be put o searching if
there are only a few birds. Many
waders undertake their major mi-
grations departing on or around a
full moon and may y for three to
four days at a time, so arrivals may
take place in the week following
a full moon and you should plan
your searches accordingly. e
week of 19 September and particu-
larly around 20 October are both
target dates for arrivals.
e two alboaxillaris seen in Ma-
puto were part of a small group of
30 adult Whimbrels that roosted
together at high tide but dispersed
at low tide to feed in what are prob-
ably high-quality feeding areas with
an abundance of bubbler crabs.
Several of the birds in this group,
including one of the Steppe Whim-
brels, vigorously defended low-tide
feeding territories and it may be
that by virtue of their larger size the
two alboaxillaris were able to assert
themselves to be outstandingly suc-
cessful in this very competitive en-
vironment. If that is the case, then
searches for Steppe Whimbrel – at
least for adults – might focus on
mudat areas where Whimbrels are
feeding as loners at low tide and ex-
hibiting territorial behaviour.
eir high-tide roost is still
the most ecient place to search
through many birds quickly, but
be aware that, depending on local
conditions, roosts can also be dis-
persed at certain times in the tide
cycle: in Maputo Bay the Whim-
brels will wait out neap tides on
the sand banks and not bother to
y to the roost site. Note that birds
taking a four-day-long migratory
ight aer the full moon will arrive
shortly before neap tides.
It is also worth mentioning
that both the Steppe Whimbrels
in Maputo were tamer than the
other Whimbrels. If the high-tide
roost ock was disturbed, they
would oen remain on the beach
by themselves and were far more
Steppe Whimbrels appear very
similar to nominate Whimbrels
and identication can seem frus-
trating and impossible at rst. But
with patience and particularly with
careful photography of the birds
in ight, alboaxillaris are quite
At rest
Once you have arrived at the high-
tide roost and all the birds are
standing there, what do you look
for? e birds in Maputo were pal-
er than nominate Whimbrels. One
bird, which was probably a male,
was clearly paler and greyer than
most nominate Whimbrels present
alongside, but the other bird, prob-
ably a female, was not as obvious,
with more brownish tones. is
paler tone is mentioned in descrip-
tions of the specimens but, looking
at a ock of live Whimbrels, you
might be surprised at how much
variation there is in plumage tone,
so work your way through them
carefully and pick out the pale ones
as a starting point.
Both birds in Maputo and all the
specimens had a clean white belly,
vent and undertail coverts, where-
as all the phaeopus Whimbrels
showed dark lanceolate streaking
or chevrons in these areas. is is
a good feature but hard to conrm.
Scrutinise the area behind the legs
on the sides of the undertail cov-
erts, through the scope if possible,
or take photographs and check on
the back of the camera. If you can
see even one or two dark chevrons,
then forget it. If the area is com-
pletely unmarked and pure white,
then focus in on the bird.
Of the two birds in Maputo, one
bird (the female) had very notice-
able long primary extension well
beyond the tail, which was an easy
and useful diagnostic feature. We
examined hundreds of images of
Whimbrels and found none which
showed long primary extension, so
if you see a bird at rest with wings
clearly longer than the tail, then
this is a very good indication that
you are onto something good.
Finally, you might be able to
see the outer webs of the outer tail
feathers. ese are laddered black
and white in Steppe Whimbrels;
a small number of phaeopus also
show this character for the basal
part of the outer tail, but the rest of
the tail has a strong brownish wash.
Less reliable characters are the
breast, which is nely streaked
blackish brown (no scalloping) on a
clean white or greyish white back-
ground; the streaking ends on a
pectoral band higher up the breast
than in many, but not all phaeopus.
Structurally, alboaxillaris appears
bulkier, more ‘tubby’ in the body
ere are only 10 records from Af-
rica and they are mostly from in-
tertidal bay ats, and in particular
between Inhambane and Durban,
where there are concentrations
of Whimbrels. It is worth noting
that in 1993 and 1994 surveys in
the Bazaruto area by Peter Köhler,
who was looking for alboaxillaris,
found none; maybe Steppe Whim-
brel concentrates farther south in
the austral summer?
Target areas in Mozambique are
the large estuary around Inham-
bane (where the type specimen
was collected in 1906); possibly at
the Limpopo River mouth and the
entrance to the lagoon at Bilene;
north Maputo Bay (along the shore
north of the city, and Xena Island)
and Inhaca Island (where as many
as 1400 Whimbrels have been re-
corded, making this the single big-
gest target site). South Maputo Bay
is dicult to access and almost un-
known but also has great potential.
And in South Africa the huge wet-
lands of St Lucia, Richards Bay and
Durban Bay are all major targets
this coming season.
Long-term monitoring in Dur-
ban Bay by David Allan and oth-
ers reveals that Whimbrels are
most frequent in the region from
September to April (Allan 2012).
However, there is evidence that
alboaxillaris breeds in the steppes
earlier than the tundra-breeding
Whimbrels farther north and may
thus arrive in the non-breeding
areas in Africa earlier too and be
relatively more frequent here in
August and September. >
Alboaxillaris (top)
shows a narrower
band of barring on
the flanks, and the
‘male’ bird was paler
grey on the face and
neck. Phaeopus
(above) shows streaks
and chevrons on the
undertail and vent, as
well as a more heavily
barred tail.
above The ‘female’
Steppe Whimbrel
showed white under-
wings, but with fine
dark shaft streaks at
the tips of the axillar-
ies and grey barring
on the primary
underwing coverts.
The longer wings
and deeper secondar-
ies give the bird an
overall large-winged
right The vast ma-
jority of Common
Whimbrels show
dark barring on the
underwing coverts and
axillaries, as well as a
darker, heavily barred
tail and heavy streak-
ing on the lower rump.
52 53
AFRICAN birdlife SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2016 steppe whimbrel
than the nominate form and its
wings are noticeably larger in ight,
with deeper secondaries and more
paddle-shaped primaries.
In flight
e next step is to observe the bird
on the wing. It may be that you got
to the roost before the birds arrived
so your rst views may be of it in
ight. e key features are hard to
be certain of with the naked eye,
but even relatively poor digital
photos will pick them out.
e axillaries and the underwing
at rst sight are a clean, pure white
in alboaxillaris. On close examina-
tion, most show ne blackish sha
streaks at the ends of the axillar-
ies and some have the occasional
brownish eck. Nearly all nominate
phaeopus show blackish brown and
white vertical barred axillaries, al-
though they can oen display a
whiter outer underwing. In a few
birds, the barring on the axillar-
ies is incomplete and patchy. Also
look for a narrower ank bar, which
contrasts with the white axillaries
and the white of the lower breast.
e upper rump and white area
of the back are clean white with a
suggestion of darker centres at the
base of the white back feathers on
occasion. e lower rump is also
much cleaner white than phaeopus,
but can show some narrow, dark,
streak-centred feathers. ese may
vary in visibility, oen with none
showing at all, although close ex-
amination of images of the birds in
Maputo showed up to three streaks
on the female and eight narrow
sha streaks on the male. All nom-
inate phaeopus showed some sha
streaks on the upper rump and
many lanceolate sha streaks and
chevrons on the lower rump.
e tail pattern is also a good
feature. In alboaxillaris the outer
tail feathers are clean white to
greyish white with a bu wash,
pure white tip, laddered with nar-
row black bars on both webs for
the full length (the outer web of the
outer tail feather is oen visible at
rest). e tail is very pale overall
but shows a contrast between the
darker centre tail feathers (pat-
terned with pale grey and black
laddering) and the paler outers.
In contrast, most phaeopus have
pale to mid-brown tails (note that
most eld guides incorrectly depict
Whimbrel as having a black-and-
white barred tail), barred black
and with a relatively uniform dark
background tone across the tail
span. Some phaeopus can show a
pale outer web to the basal third of
the outermost tail feathers, which
can set o alarm bells if the bird is
rst seen on the ground.
All these features are based on
eld observation of adult birds
of both forms in freshly moulted
plumage in February/March. Adult
birds encountered between August
and December will almost cer-
tainly be in moult and immatures
are so poorly known (one speci-
men only, in the Durban Natural
Science Museum) that at this stage
it is dicult to draw conclusions
(Allport 2016b).
how to Get that
critical fliGht
Photography is the best way to
conrm the identity of a Steppe
Whimbrel, and here are some tips
to increase your chances.
Birds on the ground can be pho-
tographed with any camera, and
even digiscoped, but getting clear
images of the critical ight features
requires a DSLR with fast shutter
speed. To enable tracking of the
bird in ight, set the autofocus
mode to AI Servo AF (Canon) or
AF-C (Nikon) and use a cluster of
autofocus points that allows the
tracking to work well. If the back-
ground is busy, the camera focus
will move o the bird, so position
yourself so the bird ies against the
sea or the sky.
Test your settings on a gull,
which also has pale plumage, be-
fore approaching any whimbrels.
Firstly, take a photograph of the
whole ock to assess if any birds
are markedly paler and to see if any
have wing tips that project. is
projection can only be accurately
assessed from the side and ideally
from as low down as possible.
above The second
Steppe Whimbrel in
Maputo was thought
to be a male as it was
smaller and a vocal
songster. He was very
strikingly pale grey,
with clean under-
wings and a very pale
tail and rump.
right The female
(closest to the viewer)
had a pale tail with
a buffish wash and
showed a gradation
from darker centre
tail to paler outers.
This contrasted with
Common Whimbrel
(at the top of the
image), which shows
a much darker tail
with only minor
gradation in tone. The
lower rump on both
Steppe Whimbrels was
almost unstreaked
clean white, contrast-
ing with the more
heavily streaked rump
of Common Whimbrels.
This shows the ‘male’
Steppe Whimbrel
(right) alighting with
a nominate phaeo-
pus (left). Note the
underwing, undertail,
tail, breast and flank
STEPPE WHIMBREL Vs common whimbrel
• Steppe Whimbrel is overall paler, cleaner
and sometimes greyer
• Clean white belly, vent and undertail
coverts vs dark lanceolate streaking or
chevrons on the undertail coverts and
• Noticeable long primary extension well
beyond the tail on some birds vs wings
same length as, or shorter than, the tail
• Breast finely streaked vs scalloped in
most birds
• Breast streaking ends higher up the
breast in most cases
• Bulkier jizz
• Outer webs of the outer tail feathers
laddered black and white vs strong
brownish wash with only partial ladder-
ing sometimes visible
• Axillaries and the underwing at first
sight are clean pure white (with very
fine blackish streaks at ends of axillar-
ies) vs blackish-brown and white vertical
barred axillaries that can be patchy
• Narrower flank bar, which contrasts with
the white axillaries and the white of the
lower breast
• Upper rump and white area of the back
are clean white (sometimes a sugges-
tion of darker centres at the base of the
white back feathers) vs distinct shaft
streaks on the upper rump
• Lower rump is also much cleaner white
with few narrow, dark, streak-centred
feathers vs many lanceolate shaft
streaks and chevrons on the lower rump
• Outer tail feathers are clean white to
greyish white with a buff wash, pure
white tip, laddered with narrow black
bars on both webs for the full length
• The tail is very pale overall but shows a
contrast between the darker centre tail
feathers (patterned with pale grey and
black laddering) and the paler outers vs
pale to mid-brown tails barred black and
with a relatively uniform dark back-
ground tone across the tail span
• Larger wings visible in flight, with both
deeper secondaries and more paddle-
shaped primaries
AFRICAN birdlife
Use your usual eldcra skills to
approach: walk slowly with no
sudden movements (keep your
camera raised) and approach at
an angle, as if walking past the
birds, rather than heading directly
towards them. Pause regularly
to get closer photos. Ideally keep
the sun behind you and try to get
the whimbrel against a pale back-
ground if it ies. Aim when the
bird looks as if it might y and re
as soon as it takes o!
It is good to get a burst of shots
when the bird lis o, but it can
be dicult to see the underwing
clearly. It helps if you crouch to get
the best angle. Keep the bird in the
viewnder and track it, keeping
it in focus and take bursts as the
underwing becomes visible. e
best moment to get the under-
wing and tail pattern is when the
bird is landing, even if it is distant.
Whimbrels reveal their under-
wing for a fraction of a second as
they land, holding the carpal joint
of the wing up high, displaying
the axillaries momentarily. Oen
the bird is almost stationary, so
there is less movement to freeze.
Keep the bird tracked with your
autofocus, follow it until it lands
and then take a number of images
as it touches down.
A good tip if you are dealing
with a group of birds, especially
on a rising tide, is to wait for them
to move. ey oen do this as a
trickle, one or two at a time, so you
can position yourself to get imag-
es of the birds as they move from
one sandbank to another. You can
then photograph them one by one
as they le past, enabling you to
focus on just one or two birds for
your images. If you have to pho-
tograph a larger group, it is worth
considering using a 200-mm rath-
er than a 400-mm lens as that will
enable you to get more of the birds
in your images.
Another useful pointer if you
think you have an interesting bird
is to try and nd it feeding. Oen
the best shot of the undertail cov-
erts is taken by following the bird
and waiting for it to dip forward to
feed, giving a full view of the belly,
vent and undertail from behind.
Allan, D.G. 2012. ‘e waterbirds
of Durban Bay: current trends
and historical population trends.
Durban Natural Science Museum
Novitates 35: 1‒74.
Allport, G.A. 2016a. ‘A step back in
time.African Birdlife 4(3): 10‒11.
Allport, G.A. 2016b. ‘Steppe Whim-
brels Numenius phaeopus alboaxil-
laris at Maputo, Mozambique,
in February–March 2016, with a
review of the status of the taxon.
Submitted, Bulletin of the African
Bird Club.
Recently feared
extinct, there may
be only a handful of
Steppe Whimbrels
left today. They have
probably declined as
a result of habitat
loss on their breed-
ing grounds on the
steppes of central
I might have photo-
graphed one:
how can I be sure?
Review your pictures ac-
cording to the identi-
fication criteria and send
photographs (ideally of the
underwing, rump and tail),
cropped around the bird and
a maximum file size of 2MB,
copied to callan@birding We would be very
interested to see what you
have found.
... comm.) and Durban Museum of Natural Science (Allport & Allan 2016). The field identification characters developed (up until July 2016) are summarised in Allport & Cohen (2016) and in Peacock (2016). Field characters include cleaner/paler appearance, white axillaries, paler rump and larger size (Figs. ...
Full-text available
The local movements and migration of two Steppe Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus alboaxillaris, a little known subspecies, were studied opportunistically from February to March 2016, in Maputo Bay, Mozambique. Both birds were found to be part of a local sub-population of ca. 30 Whimbrel which hold individual feeding territories on sandy shoreline. One alboaxillaris was estimated to depart Maputo on 28 February and the other was possible to track with a PTT satellite tag, departing on 25 March 2016; this is one month earlier than other Whimbrel N. p. phaeopus and consistent with the more southern breeding phenology of alboaxillaris in lower latitudes in the steppes of Asia. The tagged bird made a 4,659-km journey in six days to Aden, Yemen and its migration route was consistent with the direction of travel for the known breeding areas of alboaxillaris. The tag fell off the bird in Yemen so the breeding destination of Steppe Whimbrel found in Maputo is still to be elucidated. The track data are the first firm evidence of a long-suspected African transcontinental migration route for southeastern African-Palearctic coastal waders. No other alboaxillaris were found in a larger population of 650 Whimbrel photo-identified in Maputo Bay.
... c.217 birds were identifiable to subspecies level in the images and three birds were found to be showing characters of alboaxillaris (Allport & Cohen 2016, Allport 2017. ...
... The female had a wider home range and remained mostly silent. A full report will be published in the next issue of the Bulletin of the African Bird Club (Allport 2017) and the finer points of the identification are covered in Allport & Cohen (2016) and a post to Birding Frontiers (see Allport for links). ...
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any references for this publication.