Featured Article | Summer 2014: Endangered Species

The Backyard Almanac: The Upland Sandpiper

By Jeannine Richards

Leopold’s hailed harbinger of summer is now listed as a threatened species in Wisconsin, where it is currently declining faster than elsewhere in its range.

The upland plover, now commonly called the upland sandpiper, is a shorebird, but prefers open, grassy prairies and plains as its habitat. The sandpipers are long-distance migrants, spending the summer months in the northern United States and southern Canada, with some populations traveling as far as Alaska. They lay eggs and rear their young in just a few short months, then make the 4,000-mile trip to South America. They spend up to eight months in their winter (austral summer) habitat in the Pampas region of northeastern Argentina, southeastern Brazil, and Uruguay. The area contains grasslands similar to the American Great Plains.

Upland sandpipers are ground nesters. Nesting pairs will scrape out several depressions in the ground and then choose one as the site for their nest. They lay two to seven eggs per clutch and the young birds can leave the nest and find food on their own almost immediately after hatching. Parents remain with the young for about a month, until they can fly on their own.

As Leopold noted, upland sandpipers faced the threat of extinction early in the 20th century due to hunting and landscape changes: “There was a time in the early 1900s when Wisconsin farms nearly lost their immemorial timepiece… The belated protection of the federal migratory bird laws came just in time.”

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Photo of upland sandpiper courtesy of Ottawa County Parks, MI

After the decline and ultimate extinction of the passenger pigeon, market hunters turned to the upland sandpiper as a substitute delicacy. The 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act between the U.S. and Great Britain (acting on behalf of Canada) protected listed migratory birds, alive or dead, from hunting, capture or sale, including any bird parts such as feathers and eggs. Today, some 800 migratory birds are protected under the act.

Upland sandpipers depend on open grassland habitat with a preference for large tracts of 100 acres or more. They are still common summer residents of the Great Plains, although their populations have declined sharply at the eastern and western edges of their range.

Much of their current decline is related to habitat loss due to the conversion of grasslands to intensive agriculture and development. Particularly in New England, airports have become some of the only remaining breeding grounds for these birds and play a valuable role in their conservation.

Threatened in Wisconsin but stable elsewhere

The upland sandpiper is listed as endangered or threatened in most of the eastern states in its range. It was added to Wisconsin’s list of threatened species in 2014. On a global scale, though, upland sandpipers are not in decline. They are listed as a species of Least Concern on the international IUCN Red List and federally listed as stable in the United States.

So should the species be a conservation priority for individual states with limited conservation budgets? It depends. State government agencies are charged with preserving their state’s heritage of flora and fauna. However, in a world of limited resources and many pressures on species, choices will inevitably have to be made about how to prioritize species preservation efforts.

Endangered species lists exist at multiple levels because they are designed to inform conservation work on a variety of scales. But the lists are not necessarily used to inform one another. As in the case of the upland sandpiper, a species can be locally declining but globally stable. Or the opposite may be true—a species may be critically endangered internationally, but is not included in the endangered species list where the majority of its remaining population exists because the species is still abundant locally.

Thus, local decisions about prioritizing species may actually work against priorities that are set with a national or international scope in mind. It is important for different levels of conservation to inform each other. Consulting the available information at all levels will help to inform and prioritize strategies for saving the species we have left.

Top image of whooping crane migration courtesy of Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

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