The wolf whistle of Upland Sandpipers is a sign of a healthy grassland, much like the call of a loon is a symbol of clean Adirondack waters. These shorebirds spend only a few months in NY, but their spectacular singing and flight display is not to be missed.
How to Find Them
Upland Sandpipers need several different types of grassland habitats to successfully raise their young. During courtship, they use areas with low vegetation and tall perches from which they can sing and strut their stuff. They need dense, higher vegetation during the nesting season so that they can conceal their ground nest, often by pulling over some vegetation to form a sort of canopy. Once the precocious young hatch, they move to open areas with short vegetation and some bare ground for foraging.
These birds are area sensitive, meaning they prefer larger patches of grasslands than smaller ones. The bigger the field, the better, partly because this helps ensure there will be adequate plant diversity so they can find suitable areas for courtship, nesting, foraging, and raising young.
Upland Sandpipers are not as shy as other grassland birds; you can often hear their whistling from a distance. After that, it usually doesn’t take long to find the vocalizing bird perched on a fence post or other high perch. The main vocalizations are the display song and alarm calls.
Display song/wolf whistle. An ethereal call that starts out with a gurgling sound, rises in pitch, and then descends into a drawn-out whip-whee-ee-you. Given by both sexes during aerial displays. Given day and night. Listen to some good wolf whistles in this recording starting at 58 seconds.
Tattler alarm calls. Emphatic, rapid quip-ip-ip-ip-ip-ip-ip-ip, usually given in flight and used as an alarm by both males and females. Shorter version used as a contact call. Watch a great video of the tattler call here.
Upland Sandpipers start building their nest roughly 2 weeks after arriving, during which time you are most likely to observe their special courtship displays. They lay a single brood of 4 eggs and incubation lasts ~21 days. The young are precocious and can walk and forage on their own soon after hatching. They are brooded by the parents who will guide them to good foraging areas and protect them from predators and other disturbances, and by one month they are able to fly and are completely independent. Afterwards the young and adults will forage together and get ready for fall migration.
Unlike in previous Species Spotlights, we don’t have enough data to present a graph showing the timing of different behaviors observed in 2020. However, based on data from the second Atlas and other resources, the breeding calendar in NY starts in mid-late April when the birds first arrive and ends in late August or mid-September when they head back south.
Late-April–early-May: arrival, pair formation, and courtship
Mid-May–June: nest building, egg laying, and incubation
June–July: brooding, parental care, fledglings
July–mid-September: loafing, getting fat, and staging for migration
Behaviors to Look For
Like other grassland specialists, Upland Sandpipers are well adapted to living in grasslands. They are cryptically colored, nest on the ground (out of sight), perform courtship displays in flight, have elaborate distraction displays to distract would-be predators, and have a short breeding cycle.
Singing. The wolf whistle is their song and should be coded as S or S7, unless it is accompanied by a flight display (which would be C-courtship). The tattler calls are used as an alarm and should only be coded with H.
Territorial behavior. Upland Sandpipers tend to be social and nonterritorial (sometimes nesting in loose colonies), but males may fight over females. Look for birds giving long, loud whistles with raised wings, birds cautiously approaching one another with an upright posture, or aggressively running towards another bird with lowered head, open mouth, raised wings, and an erect tail. Code these behaviors with a T.
Mobbing. Pairs may join up with other adults to mob intruders, a sign of agitation (A). However, if an individual feigns injury, this is a distraction display and should be recorded with DD.
Flight display. Pairs fly up together and flutter in large circles high above the ground. When the pair gets close to each other, they rapidly fall straight back to the ground. After landing, males give their wolf whistle with wings raised. Males may perform this aerial display alone for a female watching from the ground who may in turn respond with a short whistle. Code these behaviors as C for courtship. Most frequently performed in the mornings.
Ground display. Another courtship ritual (C), which may lead to copulation, is the tail-up display. Males hold their body level to the ground with head slightly raised and tail raised up over the back. He will then walk quickly or run towards the female with his gular (throat) patch puffed out while giving a low rattle call. He will run in short bursts and then give a whistle as he approaches the female.
Distraction display. Similar to a Killdeer, Uppies have an elaborate distraction display (DD) if their young are in harm’s way. They will feign injury with tail spread out and wings flapping while emitting high-pitched squeals.
Carrying eggshells. Adults remove eggshells as chicks hatch and carry them away, so it is possible with a bit of luck to see one carrying away shells (FS).
Nest building. While it’s unlikely you will observe these birds nest building because they don’t build much of a nest, it is possible. This is because pairs will scrape as many as a dozen hollows in the ground before deciding where they want to settle in and lay their eggs. If you see a bird wiggling it’s breast into the ground and kicking out dirt behind it, record it as NB.
Conservation and Management
Grassland birds have declined more than any other group of birds in the last 50 years. A whopping 720 million fewer grassland birds (53%) are present than there were in 1970. Changes in farming practices, development, and reforestation are responsible for the steady decline of grassland birds in the Northeast. There were 65% fewer blocks with Upland Sandpipers in the second NY Breeding Bird Atlas (2000-2005) than in the first (1980-1985), and the number of blocks with confirmed breeding dropped by 73%.
Upland sandpipers have started utilizing airports, reclaimed mines, capped landfills, and other human-made landscapes, which suggests that they could recover with targeted management. The NYS Department of Environmental Conservation has a list of best management practices that include providing large fields, a mix of habitat types (short and tall grasses) to accommodate different phases of the breeding cycle, moderate grazing, and delay of harvests to give the young a chance to leave the nest.