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Upland Sandpiper
Bartramia longicauda
– Family
Authors: Houston, C. Stuart, and Daniel E. Bowen, Jr.
Revisors: Houston, C. Stuart, and Cameron R. Jackson

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Adult Upland Sandpiper vocalizing, Minot, ND, 23 June.
Figure 1. Breeding distribution of the Upland Sandpiper.

On cool August nights you can hear their whistled signals as they set wing for the pampas, to prove again the age-old unity of the Americas. Hemisphere solidarity is new among statesmen, but not among the feathered navies of the sky.

Aldo Leopold 1966, A Sand County Almanac

Unlike most shorebirds, the Upland Sandpiper is completely terrestrial, rarely associated with coastal or wetland habitats, an obligate grassland species; as a result, it is often recognized as an indicator of tallgrass prairie health. It exhibits distinctive grassland adaptations: cryptic coloration, ground-nesting, well-defined diversionary displays, flight song, and relatively short incubation and nestling periods.

This species spends as little as 4 months on its breeding grounds, largely in the central and northern plains of North America, where it typically requires 3 different but nearby habitats: during courting, it needs perches and low vegetation for visibility; during nesting, higher vegetation to hide its nest; and during supervision of young, lower vegetation. The Upland Sandpiper is capable of long flights, often reaching its wintering grounds in South America within a week, where it spends up to 8 months. During this southbound migration, individuals are known to wander to Guam, Australia, Tristan da Cunha, and Deception Island off Antarctica, and from inland North America to Europe.

In contrast to its relative abundance in the central and northern Great Plains, where nearly 70% of the breeding population occurs (Vickery et al. 2010), the Upland Sandpiper is distributed sparingly west of the Rocky Mtns., primarily in high-altitude meadows in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Alaska, British Columbia, the Yukon, and the sw. Northwest Territories. In e. North America, the species is becoming more abundant in blueberry barrens in e. Maine (Shriver et al. 2005), in New Brunwick (Sauer et al. 2008), and in peatlands in Quebec (Calmé and Haddad 1996). Similarly, airports now supply half or more of this species’ nesting sites in several northeastern U.S. states, where larger, contiguous tracts of grasslands are otherwise in short supply. Evidence of breeding success in these habitats is limited.

Once especially numerous on the western plains, even expanding into eastern North America as forests were converted to agriculture (Bent 1929, Palmer 1967), the Upland Sandpiper succumbed to tolls of market and sport hunting in the late 1800s and early 1900s (Ailes 1980, Houston 1999). With no bag limits or closed seasons, birds were shipped to market by boxcar loads (Grimm 1953). Although enforcement of the Migratory Birds Convention Act of 1916 curbed this decline, in most places across the northern Great Plains the chronology of its decline suggests that an even more detrimental factor was the loss of most of its breeding habitat as grassland was broken by the plow and crops were planted (Bent 1929, White 1983, Page and Gill 1994). Similar declines were noted on wintering grounds in S. America (Bent 1929). Since 1970, Breeding Bird Surveys (BBS) suggest continued population declines across portions of the United States and Canada (Sauer et al. 2008, Environment Canada 2010), which have led to its listing as a species of conservation concern in at least 22 states and provinces (Appendix).

Alexander Wilson named this species Tringa bartramia in 1813, unaware that Bechstein had named it T. longicauda the year before. In 1831, however, Lesson “established a new genus name for it, Bartramia, thus perpetuating Wilson’s wish to honor [William] Bartram” (Terres 1980: 782). It was named Bartramian Tattler in the initial Coues check-list (1882), Bartramian Sandpiper in the first 2 American Ornithologists’ Union check-lists (1886 and 1895), then Upland Plover in the third check-list (1910). Its name was changed to Upland Sandpiper in the thirty-second supplement to the checklist (Eisenmann 1973).

Vignettes of its early abundance, north and south, are available from Elliott Coues (1874, 1878), surgeon and naturalist on the U.S.-Canada boundary survey in 1873 and 1874, and from author-naturalist W. H. Hudson (1922, 1923), who lived on the Argentine pampas until 1874. The first life-history study, succinct and packed with information, was by Buss and Hawkins (1939) in Wisconsin in the late 1930s. Additional information was gathered in subsequent thesis studies by Ailes (1976, 1980) in Wisconsin, Dorio (1977) and Dorio and Grewe (1979) in Minnesota, and by Goering (1964) and Bowen (1976), both in ne. Kansas. Waterfowl biologists based at the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center in Jamestown, ND -- beginning with Higgins and Kirsch (1975), and Kantrud and coauthors (1981–1983, 1992), and more recently including Johnson (1997) and Dechant et al. (2002) -- have studied aspects of the ecology and management of this and other grassland species.