For the Birds Radio Program: Upland Sandpiper
The Upland Sandpiper is a lovely bird and a six-ounce living piece of history. Not all wolf whistles are given by wolves. 3:40
The Sax-Zim Bog is famous among birders, but normal people have never heard of it because it’s a habitat rather than a specific location, and it isn’t listed on maps. It’s the bog country around Meadowlands, Minnesota, and is one of the best places in the entire state for finding breeding Great Gray Owls, Connecticut Warblers, Yellow Rails, and other Northland specialties. It’s also one of the best places this side of the Wisconsin border for finding Upland Sandpipers.
Uppies are one of my favorite shorebirds—leastwise, they’re classified as shorebirds, though you never really find them on the shore of anything. They live in large expanses of grassland, and although you have to search hard to find them in the tall grass, sometimes they cooperatively sit on fence posts for easy looks, even from a car going 55. Upland Sandpipers, which used to be called Upland Plovers, don’t have the striking markings of some of their gaudier relatives, but their thin neck and long tail give them a distinctive and pleasing shape, their large eyes look both intelligent and gentle, and their habit of holding their wings elevated a moment when landing gives them a graceful, delicate aspect.
Like many birds of the prairie, Upland Sandpipers have rich aerial courtship displays. Sometimes they rise from the ground and circle about, wings aquiver, making a rapid purring song. Then they dive abruptly to the ground, but somehow pull in the brakes and jerk to a half before they hit the ground, and fall gracefully and more slowly the last couple of feet. My favorite display is their wolf-whistle—this entrancing call above a pre-dawn grassland glistening with dew is one of the most thrilling early morning events for me. I like to imagine the virgin prairie extending well beyond the horizon, bison grazing in the distance, delicate lark music tinkling all around, pierced occasionally by the ethereal song of the Upland Sandpiper. Now, of course, traffic sounds and road cuts and development intrude on every grassland I go to. The costs of progress are rather steep, if unquantifiable.
Upland Sandpipers are as tasty as they are lovely, and were pretty much exterminated from much of the midwest by hunters in the late 1800s. They provided necessary meat for many pioneers, but also moving targets to be killed for fun and left to rot by the uglier people who settled this part of the country. The Upland Sandpiper, once one of the most common and easily seen of all birds around Minneapolis, was wiped out of the southern half of Minnesota by 1900. Fortunately, protection afforded by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act has helped it enormously, but diminished grassland habitat prevents it from ever reaching the numbers it once enjoyed. We have to go to special places like the Sax-Zim Bog or some of the lush pastures near the south shore of Lake Superior to find them now. Whether we seek them as a lovely bird, a tick on a checklist, or a six-ounce living piece of history, every sighting becomes a timeless moment to be valued long after.