Upland sandpiper (Bartramia longicauda )

Also known as: Bartram’s sandpiper, upland plover
Synonyms: Totanus campestris, Totanus melanopygius, Totanus variegatus, Tringa longicauda
French: Maubèche des champs
GenusBartramia (1)
SizeLength: 26 - 32 cm (2) (3)
Wingspan: 50 - 68 cm (2) (4)
Weight98 - 246 g (2) (3)
Top facts

The upland sandpiper is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

Described as being an elegant species (2), the upland sandpiper (Bartramia longicauda) is a slender (5), medium-sized shorebird (3) with a long, thin neck and a small, rounded, dove-like head (2) (3) (4) (5) (6). It has large, dark eyes (2) (3) (5), and a short, straight yellow bill with a black tip (2) (3) (5) (6). Its legs are also yellow, and are relatively long (2) (3) (4) (5) (6).

The cryptic colouration of the upland sandpiper is an adaptation to its grassland habitat, as it is able to camouflage itself from predators (3) (5). This species has dull olive to brown-buff upperparts with dark brown barring and pale buff fringing (2) (3) (5), giving a mottled appearance (4) (6). The head, neck and breast are pale buff with dark streaking (3) (4) (5) (6), which extends onto the white flanks (5). The belly is also white (2) (4) (6).

There is no obvious difference in appearance between male and female upland sandpipers (3) (5), although the male tends to be a bit smaller (3), with the female often having slightly longer wings and a longer tail (2). The plumage of this species does not vary across its range (3), and there is no seasonal variation in colour (2) (3).

Juvenile upland sandpipers are similar in appearance to the adults (3) (5), but they have buff tips and fringes to the feathers on the upperparts (2) (3) (5), as well as less streaking on the flanks (2) (5). In addition, juveniles tend to have dark brown shoulders (2), and a pale head without a dark crown (3).

The call of the upland sandpiper is very distinctive, and has been described as a long, mellow ‘wolf whistle’ which consists of rolling trills (3) that descend in pitch (4). The upland sandpiper also produces what is known as a ‘tattler call’, which is a rather energetic, rapidly uttered ‘quip-ip-ip-ip-ip-ip-ip-ip’. When given more urgently, this is used as an alarm call. In addition, the upland sandpiper has been reported to utter a short, staccato whistle, which sounds like ‘hu-hu-hu’ (3).

The breeding range of the upland sandpiper extends south from Alaska and Canada (2) (3) (5) (6) to the central United States (3) (4). This range runs from the Rocky Mountains in the east to the Appalachian Mountain region in the west (2), through states including Oregon, Texas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, West Virginia and Maryland (2) (5). 

The upland sandpiper is a long-distance migrant (4), flying south to spend the winter in South America (2) (4) (5) (6), where it spends up to eight months of the year (3). Its wintering grounds are located from Suriname and northern Brazil to central Argentina and Uruguay (2) (5). During the southbound migration, upland sandpiper individuals have been known to veer off to Guam and Australia (3), and this species is classified as a vagrant in several other countries including France, Italy, Norway, the UK and Greenland (7).

Unlike most shorebird species, the upland sandpiper is rarely associated with watery habitats such as coastal or wetland areas (3) (4). Instead, this species can be found in grasslands (3) (4) (5) such as fields, grazed pastures, croplands and meadows (2) (3) (4) (5), particularly drier areas with low woody cover and moderate grass cover (3). Due to its preference for grasslands, the upland sandpiper is often considered to be an indicator species for the health of native prairies. This species is also occasionally found in damp, upland tundra heath and mountain meadows (3).

The upland sandpiper has specific habitat requirements on its breeding grounds. During courting, this species needs perches and low vegetation for visibility, whereas during nesting the upland sandpiper prefers areas of higher vegetation in which to nest (3).

Little is known about the upland sandpiper’s habitat use in its wintering range in South America (3), but this species is reported to frequent natural grasslands as well as cultivated land and planted pastures (2) (3), including golf courses and even suburban lawns (2).

A long-distance migrant (2), the upland sandpiper leaves its northerly breeding areas around mid-July to late August (3) or early September (2), migrating largely at night to its feeding grounds in South America (3). It arrives in late September to October, and remains there until its departure for North America in mid-February (2). Interestingly, the upland sandpiper spends as little as four months of the year on its breeding grounds (3).

The diet of the upland sandpiper consists mostly of terrestrial insects such as grasshoppers, crickets, weevils and flies, as well as other invertebrates including centipedes, spiders, snails and earthworms (2) (3) (5), and even crayfish (3). This species is also known to feed on seeds and other vegetation (2) (3) (4) (5), but in North America studies have found that 95 to 97 percent of the upland sandpiper’s diet is made up of invertebrates (3). The upland sandpiper forages in fields (4), gleaning low-flying insects and picking them off vegetation as it passes by (3). As it eats crop-damaging insects, the upland sandpiper is often considered to be beneficial to farmers (5). This species has not been observed drinking, and is thought to obtain water from the food it consumes (3).

Adult upland sandpipers, chicks and eggs are all vulnerable to predation by a variety of species, including coyotes (Canis latrans), raccoons (Procyon lotor), mink (Mustela vison), golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) and snowy owls (Nyctea scandiaca) (3).

The upland sandpiper is typically a monogamous species (3), and is known to occasionally nest in small, loose colonies (2) (4). This species starts breeding in early to late summer (4), when the male performs courtship displays both in the air and on the ground (3). The upland sandpiper nests in a hollow scrape in the ground, usually in ungrazed upland habitats among dense grass and relatively tall vegetation which provides cover (3) (4) (5). Leaves, grasses and small twigs are used to line the scrape (3) (5).

The female upland sandpiper lays its eggs between May and June (2) (3), and usually only produces one brood per breeding season, only re-nesting if the first clutch gets destroyed or is unsuccessful (3). Each upland sandpiper clutch typically contains about four eggs (2) (3) (4) (5), although larger clutches of up to seven eggs have been recorded (3). The smooth, slightly glossy eggs are variable in colour, ranging from light pinkish-cinnamon to pale olive-buff with even, dark brown spotting, and are relatively large (3). The eggs are incubated for between 21 and 28 days (2) (3) (5), although a period of 23 or 24 days is most common (2) (3). Both sexes are involved in egg incubation (2) (5), although their roles in tending to the chicks once they have hatched are not clear (2), with some reports suggesting that both adult upland sandpipers care for the young until the chicks are able to fly at about 30 to 34 days old (5).

Little information is available on the lifespan of the upland sandpiper, but one ringed bird was known to be 8 years and 11 months old (3).

Historically, the upland sandpiper was extensively hunted (3) (4). This, combined with prairie cultivation and further degradation of its habitat for housing development (2) (3), led to a dramatic decline in the species’ population during the late 19th and early 20th century (2). Surveys since 1970 indicate that the upland sandpiper is in continued decline across parts of its range (3), but as it is still fairly abundant in some areas of its breeding range (2) and is believed to have a large population (1), it is not currently considered to be globally threatened (2).

There are currently no known conservation measures specifically in place for the upland sandpiper. However, this species is listed as ‘Endangered’ in several US states, and is listed as a ‘Species of Conservation Concern’ in at least 22 states and provinces within its range (3).

Suggested measures to help conserve the upland sandpiper include fencing areas and providing extra perches for the species, delaying mowing to prevent damaging eggs and disturbing young, and preserving adequate areas of grassland mosaic habitats (3) (5). These habitat mosaics should ideally be formed of undisturbed grassland, grazed lands, and other vegetation of differing heights, and efforts should be made to prevent the encroachment of woody plants (3).

Find out more about the upland sandpiper:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (October, 2013)
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1996) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 3: Hoatzin to Auks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. The Birds of North America Online - Upland sandpiper (November, 2013)
  4. MobileReference (2008) The Illustrated Encyclopedia of European Birds: An Essential Guide To Birds Of Europe. MobileReference, Boston.
  5. Beans, B.E. and Niles, L. (2003) Endangered and Threatened Wildlife of New Jersey. Rutgers University Press, New Jersey.
  6. Deal, K.H. (2010) Wildlife and Natural Resource Management. Cengage Learning, Hampshire, UK.
  7. BirdLife International - Upland sandpiper (November, 2013)