Until the Migratory Bird Act was passed in 1918, when this game bird was known as the Upland Plover it was considered a delicacy, and could be found on menus of some of the finest restaurants (Houston and Bowen 2001).
This species has declined dramatically both in distribution and abundance since the mid 1980s. The overall statewide distribution (based on BBA data) has decreased 65%, while abundance (based on BBS data) has declined by about 16% per year. The primary threats of agricultural conversion, fragmentation, and intensification are ongoing and expected to increase.
The statewide distribution of this species has contracted dramatically since the mid 1980s. All regions of the state showed steep declines in occupancy, and the maps conveyed the general impression that the statewide population was collapsing toward its core in Jefferson County. Populations in the lower St. Lawrence Valley and Southern Tier/Finger Lakes showed especially severe range contractions (McGowan and Corwin 2008). A former stronghold in the mid and upper Hudson and Mohawk Valleys (Bull 1974) also declined substantially. Breeding Bird Survey abundance data in New York between 1966 to 2003 also show variable patterns of decline in different regions of the state. Steep declines in the number of birds observed on BBS routes occurred in the St. Lawrence Valley, upper Hudson and Mohawk Valleys, while moderate declines occurred throughout most of western New York. Slight increases were found in the upper Mohawk Valley, at the east end of Lake Ontario in Jefferson County and the Black River Valley as well as extreme northwestern New York in Niagara, Orleans and Livingston Counties (Peterjohn and Sauer 1999). Despite Jefferson county being the core of the range in New York, Lazazzero and Norment (2005) only found Upland Sandpipers at about a dozen different locales, and they were the rarest grassland bird species in the County. Murphy (2003) showed that avian popualtion trends are strongly linked to changes in agricultural land use in the eastern U.S. Between 1985-2006 acres in permanent pasture in New York State declined by 23%, while hay acreage declined by 32%; corn acreage was nearly stable (USDA data). From 1993-2006 the western southern tier lost 20% of its farm acreage (New York Agricultural Statistics Annual Bulletin, 2006-2007 data), coinciding with the near elimination of the Upland Sandpiper as a breeding species in this region of the state (McGowan and Corwin 2008). During the same period, other regions of the state (St. Lawrence Valley, western
The distribution of this species in New York State has fluctuated dramatically over the past century. Comparison of distribution maps provided by Eaton (1910), and descriptions by Bull (1974), with those from both BBA atlases (Andrle and Carroll 1986; McGowan and Corwin 2008) show a pattern of population expansion from the early part of the 20th century up through the early 1980s and then a rapid range contraction back to approximately 1900 levels a century later. Breeding Bird Survey abundance data parallel this pattern, with the largest declines beginning in the mid 1980s (-15% per year) and continuing through the present (Peterjohn and Sauer 1999). Since hay acreage has been decreasing in New York since it's 1924 peak of about 5 million acres (USDA data), this suggests that a threshold effect may be taking place. By the mid 1980s farm acreage in hay was down by half (to 2.5 million acres) but Upland Sandpiper populations still appeared healthy. By 2007, that acreage was down by nearly half again (to 1.45 million acres) but by this time the population had crashed.
Grassland birds are considered the most at risk group of birds in eastern North America. Historically, the Upland Sandpiper was extensively persecuted as a game species for both its flesh and eggs, and they were considered a delicacy. Eaton (1910) however, stated that because of their wariness they were too difficult for New York sportsmen to shoot. Currently, the loss and fragmentation of agricultural grasslands due to increased urbanization, changes in farming practices (earlier and more frequent mowing, increased cultivation of row crops), and natural forest succession of abandoned farmlands pose the most serious threats to this species (Carter 1992). Factors associated with agricultural intensification and industrial agriculture tend to degrade grassland bird habitat including: increased mechanization and use of pesticides, removal of hedgerows, spring plowing, land drainage, spread of monocultures, mowing earlier in the season when birds are still nesting, and higher livestock stocking rates (Askins et al. 2007). Declines of farmland birds across Europe have also been linked to more intensive agricultural practices (Donald et al. 2006). Wintering ground threats such as habitat conversion in South America may also play an important role in population viability.
The continued existence of Upland Sandpipers in New York will be determined almost entirely by the existence of a healthy farm economy. This bird requires forest succession to be continually set back, fairing poorly under intensive industrial farming practices. Despite being lumped in with other obligate grassland birds, this species' habitat needs are quite different from the smaller, shorter distance migrant passerines. Primarily, this bird needs very large (the bigger the better), nearly bare-ground pastures and older fields that have been in hay production for at least 10 years. The first cutting of hay should be delayed past July 15 to allow nests to fledge, and grazing intensity should not be too heavy. Programs that provide farmers with economic incentives to manage their land for conservation such as the newly implemented Landowner Incentive Program (LIP) will be crucial. Some good resources for specific management practices for grassland birds in the northeast can be found in Morgan and Burger 2008; Winter et al. 2006; Norment 2002; Bollinger 1995; Lazazzero and Norment 2005; Dechant et al. 2003. The Cornell Cooperative Extension published a series of articles on grassland bird conservation. They can be accessed at: http://scnyat.cce.cornell.edu/grassland/
Very few studies have been conducted on this species within New York State, and it is often lumped with other obligate grassland bird species. Because grassland birds show wide regional discrepancies in habitat selection and population dynamics, research specific to New York is essential (Askins et al. 2007). Studies on the effects of pesticides have not been conducted, but should be a high priority given this bird's agricultural habitat and insectivorous diet. Little is known of the wintering ecology of Upland Sandpipers in South America, and the degree to which populations are limited on the breeding vs. wintering grounds. Given that this species spends about two-thirds of the year in South America, wintering ground studies should be a high priority. This species appears amenable to radio telemetry studies (Mong and Sandercock 2005) which may give a better picture of habitat selection and use.
This is an obligate grassland species. A survey of nesting habitats in Wisconsin (White 1983) suggested that Upland Sandpipers favor a level topography with a minimum of tall vegetation edges and proportionately high acreages of agricultural crops that duplicate the structure of prairie grasslands. Preferred habitat includes large areas of short grass for feeding and courtship with interspersed or adjacent taller grasses for nesting and brood cover. In the northeastern U.S., airfields currently provide the majority of suitable habitat, though grazed pastures and grassy fields also are used (Carter 1992). Observations by Buss and Hawkins (1939) suggest a delicate distinction between acceptable and unacceptable sites. Heavy or early grazing, standing water, burning, and manuring may reduce or exclude nesting from fields accepted the previous year. Abandoned fields with invading shrubs and trees may sometimes exclude Upland Sandpipers (Laughlin and Kibbe 1985). In upstate New York, Bollinger (1995) found that Upland Sandpipers preferred larger, older hayfields (> 10 years). Habitat characteristics specific to New York include field size > 30 ha, < 1% shrub cover, 10-15% forb cover, very low litter depth, mixed vegetation height (<15 cm & 40 cm+), sparse overall vegetation density, with available perches (Morgan and Burger 2006). In Jefferson County, Lazazzero and Norment (2005) found that Upland Sandpipers favored large pastures with small perimeter/area ratios (fewer edges) that are homogenous in floristic structure (few plant species) with nearby barns and fenceposts for perching. Upland Sandpiper probability of occurrence continued to increase even at the largest field size (> 500 ha), indicating that smaller fields, even with the appropriate mosaic of vegetation elements, will unlikely be used for breeding by this species.
This is a bird of lowland agricultural areas, but its range within New York is very fluid. The prime agricultural lands on the Lake Plains in western New York, and the St. Lawrence and Mohawk Valleys, and at JFK Airport (Garber et al. 1997) seem to be consistently occupied. Small colonies in the upper and lower Hudson and Champlain Valleys and on Long Island have also persisted.
BREEDING: The contiguous portion of the breeding range extends from southern Alberta, east of the Rocky Mountains, across southern Canada to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, south to Montana, northeastern Colorado, northern Oklahoma, western Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania, central New York, and Vermont. Disjunct populations occur in north-central Alaska, Yukon, southwestern Northwest Territories, northeastern British Columbia, Oregon, and western Idaho. It is largely absent from south-central Michigan, northeastern Indiana, and northwestern Ohio, and from portions of northeast Pennsylvania, and the Catskill and Adirondack Mountains (Houston and Bowen 2001). The heart of the breeding range occurs in the short-grass prairie states of North and South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas. NON-BREEDING: Winters in South America east of the Andes Mountains, from Suriname and northern Brazil south to central Argentina and Uruguay (AOU 1983, Houston and Bowen 2001); the largest concentrations occur in the Pampas of Argentina and Uruguay (White 1988).
Upland Sandpipers range from about 28-33 cm in size and are the most terrestrial of North American shorebirds. The sexes are outwardly alike; females average slightly larger than males. Breeding adults are overall scaly brown in appearance above with a long slender neck, small rounded head, and a relatively long tail. The throat and abdomen are white. The eye is large with a dark iris. The bill is short, slightly decurved and dusky at the tip. The legs and feet are yellow-grey. Downy young are a fine, mixed pattern of black, white and buff yellowish-brown above. A black stripe runs from the base of the bill over the top of the head. Juveniles resemble adults, but the upperparts are darker and scalier with the buffy color of the neck, breast and wings much deeper and the streaks of the fore neck and breast less distinct. Winter plumage is similar to that of the breeding adult, but paler (Houston and Bowen 2001).
The unique vocalizations include a series of alarm notes and a penetrating "whip-whee-ee-you" windy whistle. The nest is a shallow depression in the ground approximately 10-13 cm in diameter and 5 cm deep, lined with dry grass. Nests are usually well hidden, frequently by vegetation that hangs over the nest hiding it from above. The eggs are cinnamon to pale olive-buff or greenish-white, spotted with brown and underlaying spots of pale grey (Bent 1929; Johnsgard 1981).
The Upland Sandpiper's long neck, large eyes, small head, and characteristic "wolf whistle" are diagnostic. Typically, birds hold their wings briefly erect after perching. The small dovelike head, long neck, and short yellowish bill imply an ungainly appearance, but movements are graceful and deliberate (Houston and Bowen 2001).
This bird is rarely seen near water and is not known to flock together with other shorebirds. It usually alights on the ground, but often on fence posts and telephone poles, rarely seen perching in trees. It nests in loose colonies, with communal feeding sites (not territorial). Colony sites are only moderately consistent from year to year, even with little apparent habitat change. Pairs typically arrive together on the breeding grounds for their brief (100-145 days) reproductive period. (Houston and Bowen 2001).
Data on diet are lacking, especially in the northeast. In one study, small invertebrates (grasshoppers, crickets, beetles, ants, snails, earthworms, millipedes) made up 95% of the diet and the remaining 5% was weed seeds. Grasshoppers, crickets and weevils formed the bulk of the invertebrates (Houston and Bowen 2001).
Upland Sandpipers arrive in New York from their South American wintering grounds in late April, nesting begins in early-to-mid-May, hatching and fledging by mid June (the young are precocial), and the young are capable of flight by mid July (Morgan and Burger 2007). Birds typically begin to flock together and begin heading south during July-August (Yank and Breton 1996).
The time of year you would expect to find Upland Sandpiper active and reproducing in New York.
Bartramia longicauda (Bechstein, 1812)
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Information for this guide was last updated on: April 30, 2019
Please cite this page as:
New York Natural Heritage Program. 2023. Online Conservation Guide for Bartramia longicauda. Available from: https://guides.nynhp.org/upland-sandpiper/. Accessed March 23, 2023.