Tomato tamato. Potato patato. The effect isn’t quite the same when it’s written down, but when said out loud, most of us are familiar with the saying. The words are of course pronounced differently, but the inference is that despite this, two things are essentially one and the same. Tomato potato however, means that somebody may imply that two things are the same, when in fact, they are quite different. So, with the vocabulary out of way, let’s get down to the point and what this has to do with the curlew and the whimbrel. Last year, whilst still at university, we were on a field trip to the moorlands of Northumberland and were carrying out bird identification. Traipsing through the bogs and doing our best to keep the cold at bay, I was accompanied by two of my friends, Jack and Jay. Both were armed to the teeth with bird ID books, freely admitting that they were far from bird enthusiasts. Jack is more of a plant man and Jay is more of a butterfly girl, so between us, we weren’t doing too badly with our ID’s. When we came across a species of wader on the moorland, I was ordered not to speak so that Jack and Jay could identify the species alone and unaided. I obeyed and kept shtum. Flicking through the pages eagerly, Jack, with a triumphant look on his face, pointed and said:
Shaking my head politely, I pointed to the bird that featured close to the whimbrel, but whose name was in fact, the curlew. Glancing between the two birds with a confused expression, Jack shrugged and said:
‘Meh. Potato patato.’
Now, as we all take a deep breath and calm ourselves after reading such a scandalous claim, we can admit that we can definitely see where such confusion comes from. These two species of wader are, undeniably, very similar. They both have the same type of body, the same down curved bill and the same rather drab (sorry but it’s true) plumage. So, what’s the difference? Is there a difference? Or is it all in the DNA? Well, of course there are physical differences, but we have to be prepared to look and listen very closely to find them.
So! Let’s start alphabetically, with the curlew. First things first, when it comes to this species, it is definitely considered as the most common of the two species. Therefore, when looking at your unidentified bird, statistically, he is more likely to be a curlew than a whimbrel, but that is no way to ID a bird. Possibly one of the most recognisable things about the curlew when compared to the whimbrel, is their size. The curlew is the bigger of the two, with a body size that rivals that of a herring gull, whilst whimbrel are closer to the size of a common gull. But if they’re not standing next to each other, there is no frame of reference! Good point, but it is definitely a reasonable starting point.
So, what else? The next feature, which is perhaps the most noticeable, is of course the bill, with the curlew having a long, down curved beak. There are some who would say the length of the bill is an easy identifying feature, but this can be misleading as curlew bills do vary in length, making this feature very difficult to assess. What do we do then? Well, the best thing to look at is the curve itself. The curve of the curlews bill is gradual and constant, whilst the whimbrel’s bill looks as if it were designed to be straight, but has since been bent downward at the end. Another feature of the whimbrel, which is again quoted by many an ID book, are the strips of brown on the whimbrel’s crown. However, these can be difficult to identify, especially if you or your equipment cannot focus on such a subtle feature. So, body size and bill shape are seemingly the go to identification features (for me at least).
There is something else though, something far more obvious and something that literally fills the skies. Their calls. If you’re like me and live in an area with plenty of curlew, you’ll know exactly what they sound like, as they are extremely noisy. Arguably the most recognisable of these calls, is a long, drawn out flute like whistle sound of ‘courrrr-lii’, which is often repeated. They also make a rippling like rapid call and when flying, a single noted, loud pipe like-whistle. Their song again sounds like a whistle, but it almost sounds as if it were ‘bubbling’ as the notes rise.
And the whimbrel? Well, just to confuse us all, they also make a whistle type call, but it is less flute like than the curlew’s and is often repeated as a series of notes in quick succession. In fact, an ancient name of the whimbrel was ‘seven whistler’, due to these fast and repeated notes. You can look these up and listen to them quite easily on the RSPB and BTO websites or YouTube, which are no doubt much more helpful. Personally, I always find it difficult to identify a call just from reading the written description of them!
So, curlew and whimbrel. Not potato patoto, but tomato potato, though maybe the differences are not quite so obvious. If you know your birds, or know your waders, distinguishing between the two may seem like an easy task. However, for those who are just starting out in birding, or even those who don’t specialise in waders, telling the two apart can be a bit of head scratcher. However, even after all the reading and the endless staring at pictures, trying to burn the images into our brains, the best thing to do is venture out into the wild. Even if you don’t have both species in front of you, being able to confidently identify one will defiantly help you distinguish it from the other in the future.
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