Blane Klemek: The moving whistle of the upland sandpiper is sweetness to hear
During my summers conducting wildlife research across the Missouri Coteau of North Dakota, not many creatures moved me more than the upland sandpiper; that “shorebird of the prairie”, that delicate avian friend of mine with the somewhat melancholy whistle, a song so gently delivered, such sweetness to hear, so comforting to know.
For as much as I enjoyed observing this bird of the open landscape, a bird so dependent on relatively undisturbed grasslands, a bird that undoubtedly evolved with the nomadic herds of bison that once freely roamed the Great Plains, it’s surprising to me the number of birders I’ve met that have yet to observe the species. To me, no other bird characterizes the prairie better than the upland sandpiper.
I recognize the irony of classifying this grassland associated species of bird with those others known as “sandpipers”, but, truth told, upland sandpipers, though looking the part, behave like no other bird of its kind. Perhaps the upland sandpiper would have been more appropriately placed in a family by itself. For sure, the bird is at least in its own genus.
Upland sandpipers, although frequently observed near prairie wetlands, breed and nest within mixed short and tallgrass prairie uplands, wet meadows, pastures, old fields, and sometimes grain fields. It’s very common to observe the species perched on the tops of fence posts or on rocks and boulders.
I was always captivated by the upland sandpiper’s whistles and call-notes. Described by one observer: “The calls of the upland sandpiper are unmistakable . . . a bubbling ‘pip-pip-pip-pip’ along with the beautiful ‘whr-r-reep, whreeeow’ whistle.”
Further explained, with respect to the enchanting courtship whistle, it is often described as a “wolf whistle”, though much mellower, drawn out, and bubbly sounding, yet not dissimilar at all to the “pretty woman” whistle a man is sometimes guilty of shamelessly performing.
Another source, this time from a favorite author, naturalist, and ornithologist of mine, Arthur Cleveland Bent, wrote of the then “upland plover” in his “Life Histories of North American Shore Birds”, Dec. 21, 1927, which appeared in a series of bulletins of the United States National Museum on the life histories of North American birds, in his introduction of the bird:
“Let us be thankful that this gentle and lovely bird is no longer called the Bartramian sandpiper. It is a sandpiper truly enough, but one that has adopted the haunts and many of the habits of the plovers. To those who love the rolling or hilly pasture lands of the east or the broad flat prairies of the middle west, it will always be known as the upland or “field plover” or “prairie dove,” or, more affectionately, as “quailie.”
Another account, quoted in Bent’s bulletin, was submitted by Fred J. Pierce, who wrote, “First there are a few notes sounding like water gurgling from a large bottle, then comes the loud whip-whee-ee-you, long drawn out and weirdly thrilling.”
Still, another version of the endearing courtship whistle of the upland sandpiper is worth mentioning. Again, contained in Bent’s works, this time from Katherine U. Hunter (1916), who wrote, “The prolonged wail, vague and sad, of the plovers rose in our upland pasture… Ungainly, spirit-voiced birds! Once from out the black, vibrant night came the eerie, long-drawn whistle of a plover lover.”
Bent himself writes of the delightful whistle of the upland sandpiper as “…one of its greatest charms; once heard in its perfection it will never be forgotten; and it often serves to identify the species when the bird cannot be seen.” Indeed, Mr. Bent, I wish I could express it so well.
For me, the upland sandpiper provides the link in my mind’s eye from Minnesota’s northern forests with that of North Dakota’s prairie. I recall with reverence a bird on delicate wings alighting on the tops of fence posts with such grace and beauty that I shall always remain beholden to.
When landing on a favorite perch, the upland sandpiper momentarily holds its outstretched wings above its head, before gently and slowly folding them along its sides. A peculiar habit, I suppose, but a behavior that I found to be touching, and one I never grew weary of observing. Indeed, entries in my field journal often included upland sandpipers.
July 9, 1997. “I called a curious upland sandpiper to me today. He or she landed less than a few yards from me on top of a post.”
July 17, 1997. “Snipe are still winnowing. Upland sandpipers territorial calls can still be heard as well. I’m also hearing Sprague pipits perform.”
July 1, 1999. “Laid back for a spell and listened to the upland sandpipers. What a sweet and mellow and pleasing whistle.”
To be sure, upland sandpipers, a shorebird of the prairie as at home throughout North Dakota as it is across the grasslands of western and northwestern Minnesota, are a special, open landscape dependent species of bird worth getting to know and appreciate as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
(Klemek is a DNR Wildlife Manager. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)