In days of yore before bird identification guides were widely available and long before access to the Internet was ever imagined, 'May bird' was a common local name that people used to describe the Whimbrel for the obvious reason that these birds are most noticeable at this time of year.
The Whimbrel is a vocal bird and its loud trilling call often gives away its presence long before the bird is seen. It flies at night too and its seven-note monotone calling in the dark as it passes overhead is a common experience at this time of year. While the origin of the word 'whimbrel' is uncertain, it is believed to have the same root as 'whimper' and to refer to the bird's constant calling.
Whimbrel don't breed in Ireland so, in the past, when the birds arrived in April and May, people must have wondered where they were coming from and where they were going to. Keen nature watchers would have noted that the birds headed north in springtime and returned in August and September moving south.
We now know them to be one of several 'passage migrants', that is, birds that pass through Ireland in spring on migration to their breeding grounds in a band extending around the North Pole from Siberia to Arctic Canada including Scandinavia, Greenland and Iceland. The birds return in autumn on passage to their southern wintering grounds.
The route they follow is known as the 'East Atlantic Flyway', a major air corridor used by migrating birds travelling up and down the eastern margin of the North and South Atlantic Oceans to and from Arctic regions and down the west coast of Africa to as far as the Antarctic in the case of the Arctic Tern, the long-distance record holder among birds for using the flyway to its maximum extent.
Ireland happens to be strategically located on the East Atlantic Flyway making our wetlands rich in crustaceans, worms and molluscs, important service stations for the many travellers passing by on migrations to stop at to feed and to rest.
Smaller than a Curlew, and with a shorter bill and a very different call, the Whimbrel is also distinguished by its striped head. The top of its head is dark; it has pale stripes over its eyes, a dark stripe through each eye and pale areas under its eyes resulting in the distinctive pattern illustrated above.