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New Jersey Endangered and Threatened Species Field Guide
Species Group: Bird
The upland sandpiper is a slender brown shorebird. It mainly inhabits dry, inland fields. It has a thin neck, long tail, and is cryptically colored. Adults are buff brown above and are heavily marked with dark brown barring. The throat is buff with dark brown. Brown streaking extends onto the white breast and sides. The upland sandpiper has a slender neck that supports a small head. It has large, dark eyes. The bill is short and straight. It has a slight downward curve at the tip. The legs are long and yellow. When perched, the tail extends beyond the wing tips. Juveniles appear similar to adults, but have buff tips on the back feathers and less streaking on their sides. The sexes are similar in plumage.
The call of the upland sandpiper is a whistling, “quip-ip-ip-ip”, “pulippulip”, or “whip-whee-ee-you.” The upland sandpiper appears dark from above. The innerwing feathers are lighter than the darker brown outerwing and rump feathers. The underwing feathers (coverts) are white with a heavy dark brown barring. The feet do not extend beyond the tail in flight. The wings are stretched upwards upon landing.
Distribution and Habitat
The upland sandpiper is native to the prairies of the Midwest. Its range has expanded east as forests were cleared for agriculture. Their current range spans from Alaska and Canada south to northeastern Oregon, Idaho, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, and along the Atlantic Coast states south to Maryland and West Virginia and Virginia.
A bird of open countryside, the upland sandpiper inhabits grasslands, fallow fields, and meadows that are often associated with pastures, farms, or airports. Upland meadows and short grass grasslands, containing vegetation 3 to 16 in. tall, provide habitat for nesting upland sandpipers. Habitats that contain a mix of tall and short grasses and forbs provide both foraging and nesting habitat. Upland sandpipers are sensitive to vegetation height and may not use sites with vegetation exceeding 28 in.
Pastures that receive light to moderate levels of grazing offer quality habitat for upland sandpipers. Hayfields provide habitat as long as the hay is not cut during the breeding period. Large monocultures of row crops are less valuable to this species due to the lack of cover and threat of farming operations. Smaller farms that contain crops of wheat, rye, soybean, strawberries, or corn, may offer habitat for upland sandpipers. Agricultural fields that are interspersed with fallow fields are most suitable habitat for upland sandpipers.
Upland meadows and grasslands provide habitat for nesting upland sandpipers.
Airports often provide habitat for grassland birds such as the upland sandpiper. Some airports are specifically managed to benefit these birds. Larger airports, such as the Atlantic City International Airport, support breeding colonies. Smaller airports, such as county airports, may support nesting pairs if they are surrounded by other areas of suitable habitat. Strips of short grasses located along runways and taxiways as well as adjacent areas of taller grasses are used by these birds. The characteristic low flight of upland sandpipers poses little threat to passing airplanes.
Upland sandpipers require several basic structural components. Habitats must be maintained at an early successional stage. Territories often contain telephone poles, fence posts, wires, or a few, scattered small trees or shrubs, which are used as perches. Traditional nesting sites are often used in successive years provided that suitable habitat remains.
Upland sandpipers require large home ranges. Nesting ranges are usually more than 100 acres in size. Upland sandpipers use similar habitats throughout the year. Migrants can be found in hayfields, pastures, airports, grasslands, sod farms, fallow fields, and vegetated landfills. Wintering sandpipers occur in mixed short and tall grasses on the pampas of South America.
The upland sandpiper mainly eats insects and other small invertebrates. They eat many insects that damage crops and include grasshoppers, crickets, weevils, locusts, beetles, flies, moths, and ants. They also eat spiders, snails, and earthworms. They sometimes eat some weed and grass seeds.
In mid-April to early May upland sandpipers return to their breeding grounds in New Jersey. They sometimes form loose colonies, but also nest in pairs. Pairs that nest in colonies tend to be more successful than pairs that nest alone.
Nests are built on the ground in tufts of grass. A scrape in the ground is lined with grasses, twigs, and leaves. Vegetation that overhangs the nest conceals its location. Females lay a clutch of 3 to 5 eggs from early to mid-May. They incubate the eggs for 21 to 28 days. The young are born precocial, or with their eyes open and able to feed themselves. They leave the nest the day they are born. The adults care for them until they can fly when they are 30 to 44 days old. The adults and juveniles migrate south to their wintering grounds in South America. Juveniles return to breed the following year.
Current Threats, Status, and Conservation
During the 1800’s, the boom in agriculture in the northeastern United States helped provide more habitat for upland sandpipers. It enabled their population to greatly increase in this region. Following the demise of the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), hunters aimed their sights at the upland sandpiper. Their value began to increase in city markets. By the late 1800s and early 1900s, the upland sandpiper was on the verge of extinction. They were nearly wiped out by market hunters. Habitat loss on the species’ wintering grounds greatly increased population declines. Nearly all of the migrants were gone from Cape May by 1903. The Migratory Bird Conservation Act of 1916 was aimed to protect upland sandpipers and other migratory birds from persecution. Gradually populations began to recover. They still have yet to reach pre-market hunting levels. The decline of agriculture in the later half of the century prevented the upland sandpiper from full recovery.
Since the 1950s, upland sandpiper populations in the eastern United States have declined due to habitat loss. Small farms and pastures have been replaced by suburban development and large monocultures that offer limited habitat value. In addition, early and more frequent crop harvests threaten sandpiper eggs and young.
Upland sandpiper populations have declined from habitat loss. Small farms and pastures have been replaced by suburban developments that offer limited habitat.
From 1970 to 1987, the number of known active breeding sites in New Jersey fell from 26 to four. In 1979, the upland sandpiper was listed as a threatened species in New Jersey. Due to further population declines and the increasing threat of habitat loss, the status of the upland sandpiper in New Jersey was changed to endangered in 1984.
Habitat loss and fragmentation in New Jersey continue to threaten the survival of upland sandpipers in New Jersey. Today, many farms and open fields are replaced with housing developments and strip malls that replace suitable habitat for upland sandpipers.
Text derived from the book, Endangered and Threatened Wildlife of New Jersey. 2003. Originally written by Sherry Liguori. Edited by B.E. Beans & L. Niles. Edited and updated in 2010 by Ben Wurst.
Species: B. longicauda
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