What makes a whimbrel?

A writer reflects on natural cycles of absence and abundance, loss and love.


A whimbrel flies at the coast of Oregon.

This story was originally published by The Last Word on Nothing and is republished here with permission.

They were dark forms scattered up and down the beach. One here, three there, a pair just beyond them. Their large size distinguished them from the other shorebirds, drawing our attention.

“What are they?” my dad asked.

“Whimbrels,” I said.

We were at Fort Stevens, a few miles outside of Astoria, my hometown. My two younger sisters walked ahead of us, bundled against the cold of the mid-May evening. The wind was strong and unrelenting, and a heavy mantle of cloud compressed the sky against the rolling breakers of the Pacific. We were the only people on the beach so far as I could tell.

My mother had died two days before, taken by a sudden and unexpected illness. I had last seen her on Mother’s Day. When I told her I would be back next week—now, as it turned out—she smiled wanly. In retrospect I wondered if I should have taken that as a sign. She was old, but not that old, or so I thought; in the same way I am old, but not that old, at least when it comes to losing a parent.

“What makes a whimbrel a whimbrel?” my dad asked.

“Gosh,” I said. “So many things.” An overall grayish-brown aspect, but feathers that on close inspection reveal their own vivid patterns. A wingspan of 30 to 32 inches, with a bright white shaft on the outer primary. Long legs. A gracefully decurved bill. All these things, while technically correct, seemed insufficient, of course. What makes anything anything? A body, breath, a beating heart.

What makes anything anything? A body, breath, a beating heart.

We had spent much of the day going through my mother’s things—clothes, books, all the bric-a-brac she had amassed over the course of her life. My sisters were tender but unsentimental in their sorting. Full bags we piled in the room where Mom died. Those on the right went to the dump, those on the left to Goodwill. I made several trips to both places, and once they closed, picked up dinner and drove us all to the beach. Mom liked to walk on the beach, but so do a lot of people.

Among the whimbrels were western sandpipers, dunlin, dowitchers, black-bellied plovers. All of them were on their way north for the summer, but these were the stragglers, the main migratory pulse having already moved on. Rather than thousands or even tens of thousands of birds thick on the sand and frantically stuffing themselves, we were treated only to a smattering of small flocks. On the empty beach I felt the absence of those throngs, here just a week earlier.

To live on the Oregon coast as my parents do is to see most shorebirds only in passing, but a few summers before I had visited whimbrels on their breeding grounds in Alaska. Each pair claimed a vast territory of tundra, and on that dazzling acreage the female would lay her perfectly camouflaged eggs. I desperately wanted to find one of their nests, but whimbrels are so skittish and alert that the moment a bird or her mate saw me, they both took to the air and called out in alarm: quiquiquiquiqui! They flew in circles over my head, calling and calling, refusing to land until I left. In two weeks, I didn’t find a single nest.  

Sometimes as I wrestled with my grief after my sister called with the news, I found myself thinking, Okay, I have learned all I want to learn from this, Mom can come back now. But other times, like at Fort Stevens with my family, I felt a dull and almost eerie calm. My dad and I paused to watch a whimbrel suck a worm from the sand like a strand of spaghetti. So this is what it will be like, I thought. Day after day after motherless day until I get used to it.

Whimbrels breed throughout the most northerly parts of the northern hemisphere. Their name in English is a rough approximation of their voice. A type of curlew, they were like other curlews thought to be harbingers of death, their call recalling the cries of the departed. But there are other readings. In The Wind Birds, Peter Matthiessen writes, “Yet it is not the death sign that the curlews bring, but only the memory of life, of high beauty passing swiftly, as the curlew passes, leaving us in solitude on an empty beach…”

I don’t think my mom ever read that book, but I know she would have liked it if she had.

We had gone on another mile or so when I saw a whimbrel off by itself at the sea’s edge. A film of water on the sand made a mirror for the clouds in the sky, and the blue-gray monochrome gave the scene a sense of infinite recursion, of sea sky sea sky sea sky, and at the center stood the dark pinpoint of the one bird. I broke away from my dad and walked towards it, trying to turn it into my mother, into her spirit, into a message from her, aware of the keenness of my desire pressing against its thresholds of individual well-being. I tried to reach it with all my heart, but then I got too close and the spell broke, the whimbrel leaping up, crying out, and winging low over the water until it could alight some distance away, nearer to its own kind.

Eric Wagner lives in Seattle with his family. His book After the Blast: The Ecological Recovery of Mount St. Helens was published in 2020. 
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