Whimbrel © John N Murphy
In recent decades, with springs arriving that bit earlier each year, May is not always a month of warm sunshine. Traditionally, for rural communities, May was the month that you would be gauranteed fine weather. A time of the year to get out into the countryside and prepare for the summer ahead, look forward to the long summer evenings and hay making, get organised for stone wall re-building, fencing, turf cutting and making sure that crops set earlier in the Spring, were developing desease free or without interference of a natural kind.
Past generations, who were out and about on a daily basis at this time of the year, would have been very familiar with a small migrating wader known as the Maybird. The seven note whistle of this migrant wader passing over head was always heard on glorious sunny days in May. This Maybird we now know as the Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus. There were many different old names attached to it, such as the May Fowl, May Curlew (due to the fact that it looks similar to Curlew) or May Whaup?.
So where are these Maybirds coming from and where do they go for the summer?
Whimbrels breed in the sub-arctic and arctic from Iceland across Eurasia, Siberia, Alaska and Canada. They prefer to nest in boreal or low-arctic moorland and tundra next to the treeline. The male's courtship includes a high circling song flight comprising a prolonged bubbling. They don't have different summer and winter plumage.
Whimbrel nests are just a shallow depression on the ground, usually concealed in low grass or heather. They may also make a nest on top of a mound of moss or grass that is surrounded at the base with water. The hollow is lined with soft grasses, mosses and lichens. 2-5, usually 4 eggs are laid; these are bluish green to a light olive green with lavender and brown markings. Both parents incubate (22-28 days) and raise the young. As soon as the chicks are dry, they leave the nest and stay hidden among the surrounding vegetation. Both parents care for the chicks until they fledge in 35-40 days.
Whimbrels that migrate through Ireland normally nest in Iceland. Whimbrels that pass through Northeast Asia, head for Northern Russia and Alaska to breed. They migrate back in winter to India, southern China, Southeast Asia to the Philippines and the Sundas. They migrate with other shorebirds, and often act as a sentinel species. Very wary, Whimbrels are often the first to alert the other birds to danger.
Maybirds that pass through Ireland in late April, May and on into June, migrate high in the air over our green fields and pastures, in V flying formations. They follow rivers and mountain contours using them like highways as they navigate to the Northwest for Iceland. Sometimes they stop in meadows, marshlands and shore to snatch a bite to eat, before heading off to the breeding grounds.
After breeding in the high Arctic where they benefit from 24 hours of daylight, they return south in August. On the return journey, the Whimbrel mainly follow our west coast, flying past in small flocks as they head down along the west coast of Europe and Africa, to wintering grounds in West and South Africa. There they will spend the winter basking and feeding in the warm sun of the southern hemisphere, before returning north the following May. This they do no matter what weather conditions. Maybird migration has been going on for thousands of years, a reminder to what month we are in, no matter how climate change affects our lives.