September 26, 2018
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The odd life of the upland sandpiper

Bob Duchesne | BDN
Bob Duchesne | BDN
The upland sandpiper is a comical looking bird: tall and skinny, with a long neck, pin head, and beady eyes.
By Bob Duchesne, Special to the BDN

The upland sandpiper may be the most unusual bird you never heard of. Or it may be the most unusual bird you ever heard. Technically, it’s a shorebird, except that you’ll never find it at the shore. Over much of its range — from here to Alaska — it’s a bird of prairies and dry grasslands. In Maine, its favorite habitat is on the blueberry barrens.

The upland sandpiper is a comical looking bird: tall and skinny, with a long neck, pin head and beady eyes. It struts around, chicken-like, on blueberry barrens, agricultural fields and even the short grass of airport edges, searching for insects, grasshoppers and beetles, some of which are agricultural pests. It eats a few weed seeds, but apparently not blueberries.

We know quite a bit about this bird. It is on the state’s threatened species list, so it has been studied by biologists at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Thus, we know that upland sandpipers need a lot of acreage. They require at least 100 acres of field habitat, and most of them are found on parcels exceeding 500 acres.

A bird that stands only a foot tall, and spends much of its time wandering among lowbush blueberries, can be really hard to find in a 500-acre field. It’s the proverbial needle in a haystack. Fortunately, “uppies” have a number of endearing habits that make them both findable and entertaining.

First, upland sandpipers make the weirdest noises. Their most common call is usually described as a loud “wolf whistle.” It starts with a series of low musical notes, followed by a loud, rising trill, ending with an equally loud descending whistle. It can be heard over a long distance. Their flight calls are equally odd — kind of a warbling “eep-eep-eeep.” Early in summer, they vocalize a lot.

Second, upland sandpipers move around. Finding a good vantage point and just watching for motion is often the key to locating them. They interact with each other, which means they often fly above the barrens, creating separation between rivals, or getting closer to friends, and this flight is easily noticeable.

It’s complicated. Male sandpipers are territorial and protective of their mates, so there is plenty of social competition. That tends to drive individuals apart. But the birds also have a tendency to nest in loose colonies, bringing them closer together. Sorting all this out causes a lot of kerfuffle out there on the barrens. The male’s mating display is particularly noteworthy. In May, the bird rises high into the air, circling over the barrens, calling constantly.

Third, upland sandpipers prefer specific conditions. Although the barrens are huge, they are not uniform. Alternating years of mowing or burning create a patchwork of thick plants adjacent to acres of low, scruffy stubble. The birds hide and nest among the blueberries, but they forage in the open, where they can be easier to spot. They like to perch on things to get a view of their surroundings, so they tend to be near rocks, posts and powerlines.

Upland sandpipers are long-distance migrants. Like bobolinks, they winter in the grasslands of Argentina, making an annual round-trip of 12,000 miles. Many start the long trek as early as mid-July. Historically, migration was dangerous for this species, as it was once a popular game bird. After market hunters drove the passenger pigeon into extinction a hundred years ago, their attention switched to field birds. Upland sandpipers and other shorebirds were decimated, and some species never recovered.

Upland sandpipers now appear to be holding their own. Although they’ve lost habitat in the Midwestern plains, and even more habitat in the east as subdivisions have replaced farm fields, they’ve benefited from the expansion of blueberry fields in Maine. Estimates figure there are about 750,000 upland sandpipers in North America, most of them in the plains states and provinces. Local estimates put the number of birds in Maine at around 300, a number low enough to consider the bird threatened here, even though there are no specific pressures hastening further decline.

When the Maine wildlife department last issued its assessment of the upland sandpiper, the final sentence of the report was chilling: “Until comprehensive monitoring and habitat management take place, upland sandpipers and other residents of Maine’s grasslands and barrens will maintain a precarious existence.”

Now is a good time to find them. It’s after blueberry pollination season and before harvest. Just remember to stay on the roads and avoid agricultural operations. Upland sandpipers will be Argentina-bound soon.

Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at duchesne@midmaine.com.

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