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Upland Sandpipers

by Mike Scully

This article first appeared in the August 2003 issue of the San Antonio Audubon News.

Each Spring and Fall, tides of migrating birds cross over Texas in untold hordes. For the most part, the passing of these migrants on their epic journeys goes largely unrecorded, except perhaps by us birders who see but a small fraction. Among these hordes, migrating Upland Sandpipers (Bartramia longicauda) often call attention to themselves by their distinctive flight call.

In the spring and again in late summer, the melodious whistled “qui-di-di-du!” of this species may be heard from high at any hour, day or night. Often at night, the progress of an unseen bird can be tracked across the sky. In daylight, a passing Upland Sandpiper can be surprisingly hard to spot; a long-winged, slender shorebird a bit larger than a Killdeer, flying with a steady wing beat along an arrow-straight transit of the sky.

Among the shorebirds of the family Scolopacidae, the Upland Sandpiper is unusual for its preference for dry grassland habitats instead of wetlands or shoreline. The exact relationship this species bears to the to the other members of its family has been open to question; current thinking is that it is most closely related to the curlews. In colonial days, Upland Sandpipers occurred in great abundance, and were renowned both for the flavor and alleged aphrodisiac properties of their flesh. These attributes being enough to attract the attention of market gunners, whose depredations nearly drove the species to extinction by the end of the 19th Century.

The Upland Sandpiper can be found breeding in areas of open grassland from Alaska and the Yukon south as far as Oklahoma, and eastward as far as Quebec and New Brunswick. In San Antonio, we are privileged to see this bird in the numbers that we do — over much of its range it has become exceedingly rare, especially in the East. In contrast, populations have increased in recent years on parts of the Plains and today the greatest concentrations of breeding pairs can be found directly to our north in the Dakotas and adjacent areas of Nebraska.

On the Northern Plains, Upland Sandpipers arrive on the breeding grounds in April and May. Males establish breeding territories by means of display flights and a weird, bubbling song resembling a wolf-whistle in pitch and cadence. The species has adapted fairly well to agriculture; in addition to native prairie, a variety of pastures, small grain and hay fields may be used. Pairs can also be found in association with airports, such places being especially important in maintaining remnant populations in parts of the East.

Upland Sandpipers require a large home range for breeding, sometimes in excess of 200 acres, parts of this range often being shared with other breeding pairs. A variety of insects and seeds are consumed, crickets and grasshoppers figuring prominently in the diet. Typically, four cryptically-patterned eggs are laid in a carefully concealed scrape. Incubation requires about 21 days, the precocial young then being tended by both parents for about a month.

Fall migration begins in late July and it is usually August before once again I notice that familiar melodious “qui-di-di-du” marking the progress of these birds across our San Antonio skies. They migrate to the distant grasslands of Argentina and Brazil. I have often watched them passing and wondered just how far they might travel without rest. A number of their shorebird relatives are known to migrate more than 2,000 miles at a stretch, I’m not sure anyone knows for sure in the case of the Upland Sandpiper but stray individuals of this species have been recorded as far away as Australia and New Zealand.


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