Upland Sandpiper in Carden

Ron Pittaway


First published in the Toronto Ornithological Club Newsletter, June 2018, Number 278

Upland Sandpiper on the Carden Alvar by Jean Iron


The Carden Alvar is the best place in Ontario to see and hear the Upland Sandpiper on the breeding grounds. It is local and uncommon in the province. The Uplandís far-carrying and curlew-like whistled song, whooooleeeeee-wheeee-loooooooooooo, is the spirit of the alvar meadows. It sings and displays most often in the morning.


BEST TIME: The first Upland Sandpipers arrive from South America in late April and most have departed by mid-August. In spring, before the young hatch, they are heard more often than seen, partly because one of the pair is incubating. The best time to see and photograph Upland Sandpipers is after the eggs hatch starting in early June. Suddenly both adults become much more visible taking exposed perches to watch over their young hidden in the grass. Adults guarding young are also more vocal and fly around giving kip-ip-ip-ip alarm calls. A liquid flight call pulip also helps detect them.


HABITS: The Upland is a dryland sandpiper that strictly avoids water, preferring short grass fields. Its flickering wing beats (shallow strokes) suggest a Spotted Sandpiperís flight, but the Spotted inhabits shorelines. The Upland frequently perches on fence posts, utility wires and dead trees. Upon landing, it often raises its wings straight up for a moment, exposing the underwings. These habits along with its thin neck, dove-like head, large dark eyes, short bill and long tail serve to identify the Upland Sandpiper. It is entirely a visual feeder and may have large eyes for that reason. It eats mainly insects and some seeds.


ADULT or JUVENILE: A close look is needed to tell adults from juveniles. They are best aged from photos. Adults have dark barring on the scapulars, wing coverts and tertials. Juveniles have narrow pale fringes on the scapulars and coverts imparting a scaly appearance. The first fledged juveniles are seen in late June. Adults migrate before the juveniles and late staying birds are invariably juveniles.


TAXONOMY: The Upland Sandpiper is an atypical short-billed curlew in the subfamily Numeniinae. It is related to the extinct Eskimo Curlew and Whimbrel. It was named Bartramian Sandpiper in 1886 in the first American Ornithologists' Union (AOU) Check-list honouring American naturalist William Bartram. Its name changed to Upland Plover in 1910 in the third edition of the check-list. Why change the name to plover when it is clearly not a plover? The explanation may be the Uplandís preference for fields and its habit of running and stopping plover-like to jab prey. Sixty-three years later the AOU (1973) renamed it Upland Sandpiper in the 32nd supplement to the check-list. The reason was ďto avoid misleading taxonomic implications, where a better name already has wide acceptance.Ē


FUTURE: The Upland Sandpiper is declining in Ontario and across its range. Loss of grasslands is the main cause. Fortunately, core areas of the Carden Alvar have been acquired by Ontario Parks, Nature Conservancy of Canada and the Couchiching Conservancy. The Toronto Ornithological Club played an important role in the acquisition of properties that now protect breeding populations of Upland Sandpiper and other grassland birds.


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: I thank Michel Gosselin for taxonomic advice and Jean Iron for photos and helpful comments.


Upland Sandpiper on the Carden Alvar