Skip to main content

Nature: Sandpipers are flying machines

An upland sandpiper alights on a telephone pole in rural Ashtabula County.

July 2, 2017

Jim McCormac

No Ohio-breeding bird migrates farther than upland sandpipers.
These long-winged shorebirds breed in hayfields, meadows, prairies and other open places. That stands in contrast to most shorebirds, which choose to breed in wetland habitats.
Upland sandpipers also winter in wide-open country — but at the other end of the world. Most “uppies” migrate to southern South America, with some birds making it as far as Buenos Aires, Argentina. That’s almost 6,000 miles south of Ashtabula County, where I took the accompanying photo.
I recently spent time observing a family unit of upland sandpipers frequenting farmland in Ohio’s largest county, in the northeastern corner of the state.
Shortly after arriving, I saw one of the birds fly to the top of a telephone pole, where it watched over its domain. For the next several hours, the uppies put on quite a show, flying about and landing atop poles, perching on wires, foraging in a field, and keeping tabs on two nearly full-grown chicks.
With its long neck and plump body, this species used to be known as the upland plover. But it is indeed a sandpiper. The small head is punctuated by disproportionately large eyes, useful because upland sandpipers are active at night.
Perhaps most impressive are their wings. While the bird is but a foot in length, the wings span an impressive 26 inches. The upland sandpiper is an extraordinary aerialist, and it flies effortlessly with stiff, shallow wingbeats. Some birds make the passage from North American breeding grounds to South America in a week.
The adults frequently vocalized during my visit, and there are few sounds in nature as impressive as the calls of upland sandpipers. It is an ethereal, mournful whistle, as if the wind itself were singing.
Upland sandpipers occupy a large range that extends across the northern states and through the Great Plains and north to Alaska. But the species has declined tremendously, including in Ohio.
Before European settlement, uppies were probably confined to Ohio’s prairie regions, which covered perhaps 5 percent of the state. The birds adapted well to the small, wildlife-friendly farms, and the population probably peaked in the early 1900s, when nesting was documented in almost all 88 counties.
Unregulated hunting from the late 1800s into the early 20th century decimated many species of shorebirds, including upland sandpipers. Barrels full of birds were shipped by train to big city markets, and some species never recovered.
Large-scale conversion of small bird-friendly farms to massive industrial agriculture and destruction of native prairie have also reduced sandpiper populations. Now, the upland sandpiper is listed as endangered in Ohio, and breeding is known in only a half-dozen or so counties.
The large grassy expanses of airports host many or most of our nesting upland sandpipers. Don Scott Field on the Northwest Side has supported them for several years. This habitat seems fitting, as the birds are among the world’s greatest flyers.
Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at


Popular posts from this blog

The Pinching Beetle, a rather brutish looking bug

The world is awash in beetles, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Few of them can match the intimidation factor of a Pinching Beetle, Lucanus capreolus, though. Those formidable looking mandibles look like they could slice off a finger.

Today was one of those coolly diverse days. I started off down in Fayette County, visiting the farm of a friend. He has restored about 25 acres of wetlands, and the response by the animal community has been nothing short of phenomenal. Blizzards of dragonflies of many species, amphibians galore, and nesting Blue-winged Teal, Pied-billed Grebe, and Sora. Among MANY other things. And all in a short two years. Add water and they will come.

Then, working my way home, I ducked into a Madison County cemetery that has a thriving population of Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrels, and shot images of our native prairie dog. Then, I stopped at a spot along Little Darby Creek, waded on in, and procured some pretty nice shots of various stream bluets and dancers. …

Calliope Hummingbird in central Ohio!

A hatch-year male Calliope Hummingbird strikes a pose. Small but tough, the hummingbird was feeding actively yesterday in 39 F temperatures. It frequents feeders and gardens at a home in Delaware County, Ohio, about a half-hour north of Columbus.

Fortunately, the wayward hummer appeared at the home of Tania and Corey Perry. Tania is a birder, and knew right away that the hummingbird was something special. For a while, the identification was up in the air, which isn't surprising. The Calliope Hummingbird used to be placed in its own genus, Stellula, but has recently been submerged into the genus Selasphorus, which includes Allen's, Broad-tailed, and Rufous hummingbirds. The latter two, especially, are quite similar to the Calliope in subadult plumage. Rufous is the default "vagrant" hummingbird here, with dozens of records and birds turning up annually. There is but one Ohio record of Allen's Hummingbird, from late fall/early winter 2009. Ditto the Calliope Hummi…

Snowy owl photography tactics - and things NOT to do

A gorgeous juvenile female snowy owl briefly catches your narrator with its piercing gaze. It's doing its Linda Blair/Exorcist trick - twisting its head 180 degrees to look straight behind. Owls have 14 neck vertebrae - double our number - which allows them such flexibility.

These visitors from the high arctic have irrupted big time into Ohio and adjacent regions, with new birds coming to light nearly every day. Probably 80 or so have thus far been reported in the state, and some of them have stuck around favored spots and become local celebrities.

I went to visit one of these birds this morning - the animal above, which was found last Friday by Doug Overacker and Julie Karlson at C.J. Brown Reservoir near Springfield. In the four days since its discovery, many people have visited as is nearly always the case when one of these white wonders appears near a large population center or is otherwise very accessible.

And as is always the case, people want to photograph the owls. And th…