- Minnesota Breeding Bird Distribution
- Breeding Habitat
- Population Abundance
- Literature Cited
A regular breeding resident and migrant; the Upland Sandpiper was an uncommon species during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (MNBBA).
The Upland Sandpiper’s breeding range extends throughout the Great Plains, from the Canadian Prairie Provinces south to northern Oklahoma and east through the Ohio River valley and the Great Lakes states. Scattered populations are also present in Alaska, northwestern Canada, and western New England. The core of its distribution is in the northern Great Plains of the United States (Figure 1).
Ranked as a species of Least Concern by the U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan Partnership and assigned a Continental Concern Score of 11/20 by Partners in Flight. The Upland Sandpiper is designated a Species in Greatest Conservation Need by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and a Target Conservation Species by Audubon Minnesota.
A long-distance migrant that winters in southern South America.
Primarily small invertebrates and a small amount of weed seeds.
A shallow scrape on the ground that is lined with vegetation; some vegetation may be shaped to conceal the nest from above.
In Minnesota Upland Sandpipers were formerly abundant throughout the native grasslands that stretched across the western, southern, and central regions of the state. Roberts’s (1932) account of the sandpiper is a compelling narrative on the loss of one of the prairie’s most emblematic species:
To recite the history of the Upland Plover [Sandpiper] in Minnesota is to tell a sad tale of the wanton destruction of a valuable and once abundant bird that resulted in its almost complete extermination. Sixty years ago it was present all through the summer everywhere in the open country in countless thousands. Now it is a question of whether the remnant left can be saved even with careful protection.
Because the sandpiper is a tasty bird, its destruction was hastened by the demise of the Passenger Pigeon in the 1880s. Anxious to continue satisfying the insatiable demands of eastern markets for game birds, the market hunters aimed their guns instead at Upland Sandpipers (Forbush 1912). Roberts wrote that stories of eastern market hunters killing the sandpipers “in great numbers” and shipping them east were common even in Minnesota. This killing coupled with the prairie’s conversion to agricultural lands led to the sandpiper’s rapid decline in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The species virtually disappeared from the southern region of the state between 1895 and 1900. Although populations persisted in west-central Minnesota and in the northwestern aspen parklands, their numbers were greatly reduced.
It wasn’t long, however, before Roberts (1932) began to witness the species’ slow recovery:
Gradually, very gradually, the depleted ranks were recruited, and since about 1920 it has been once more in evidence throughout much of the former range, but, except in the regions referred to above, the scattered breeding pairs are but lone reminders of the former thousands.
Not only had market hunting taken thousands of birds, but now much of the species’ former prairie habitat had been converted. However, the sandpiper’s ability to adapt to the landscape’s new hayfields and pastures enabled it to regain some of its former numbers. It even occupied small portions of north-central and northeastern Minnesota in areas where extensive forest cover had been cleared for farming operations.
Accounts of the Upland Sandpiper’s distribution by Green and Janssen in 1975 and by Janssen in 1987 further documented the species’ recovery. By now, the species was a regular breeding species throughout the state with the exception of the northeastern and north-central regions, where it remained relatively scarce. It was equally uncommon in Kanabec, Mille Lacs, and Pine Counties. Janssen’s (1987) breeding distribution map included all but the northern corner of the state defined by a line from eastern Lake of the Woods County south to southern St. Louis County. Its scarcity in southeastern and south-central Minnesota also was noted. Janssen identified 25 counties where nesting had been confirmed since 1970. Hertzel and Janssen (1998) later identified a total of 28 counties, but 4 counties originally identified by Janssen in 1987 were not included: Cottonwood, Itasca, Olmsted, and Ramsey. Although the species was found in scattered locations throughout the state, its primary distribution was restricted to the extreme western region of the state, from Rock County north to Kittson County.
More intensive survey work to delineate the Upland Sandpiper’s distribution and abundance began in 1987 with the initiation of the Minnesota Biological Survey (MBS). Designed to systematically survey the state’s rare plants, rare animals, and native plant communities, the MBS included the Upland Sandpiper among a host of rare prairie fauna that were the focus of its early efforts. A total of 545 breeding season locations were identified, the majority in the late 1980s and 1990s. Although the species was found statewide, the western grasslands in the Prairie Parkland and Tallgrass Aspen Parklands Provinces were the primary core of the species’ breeding range in the state (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 2016).
More than 20 years after the MBS work began in the western prairies, the MNBBA was launched. During the 5-year atlas survey, participants documented 349 Upland Sandpiper records in 5.3% (251/4,760) of the surveyed atlas blocks and in 5.8% (136/2,337) of the priority blocks. Breeding evidence was documented in 20 blocks (Figures 2 and 3; Table 1). The birds were observed in 54 of Minnesota’s 87 counties (3 blocks straddled counties: Cass and Itasca (1 block), and Lac qui Parle and Chippewa (2 blocks)) and were confirmed breeding in 16 counties. Nine of the 16 counties are additions to Hertzel and Janssen’s 1998 map: Cottonwood, Jackson, Lyon, Otter Tail, Pipestone, Pope, Redwood, Yellow Medicine, and Watonwan. Seven of the new counties were restricted to southwestern Minnesota (Figure 2). Upland Sandpipers remain most abundant in western Minnesota, especially in Traverse and Lac qui Parle Counties in west-central Minnesota and throughout the southwest Prairie Coteau region and adjacent counties.
The most notable change since the MBS inventories were conducted is the Upland Sandpiper’s distribution in the northwestern Tallgrass Aspen Parklands Province. The sandpipers were widely distributed in the parklands of Kittson, Marshall, and Roseau Counties during the MBS, but 20 years later they had virtually disappeared from large portions of this landscape. Today their distribution in northwestern Minnesota is restricted primarily to the Glacial Ridge area in Polk County and the Felton Prairie area in Clay County. The change likely reflects a major change in land use. For years, the region’s extensive grasslands were marginally productive, and commodity prices too low to warrant investments necessary to make the land productive, specifically the installation of tiling systems. But as corn prices increased in the early years of the 21st century, it became economical to convert these expansive grasslands to agricultural fields, thus changing the entire landscape and impacting an entire suite of grassland species.
Today, Upland Sandpipers are found throughout much of their former North American breeding range but in significantly lower numbers. Nationally, the heart of the species’ range remains in the Great Plains, where the densest populations stretch from western North and South Dakota south into western Nebraska (Figure 1). Except for scattered remnants, the species is largely absent from or very scarce in the eastern portion of its former range, including Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, New York, and New England. In some of these areas mowed grass lanes found along airport runways provide the only remaining habitat (Houston et al. 2011).
The Upland Sandpiper’s predicted distribution map (Figure 4) emphasizes the importance of the Prairie Parkland Province and closely corresponds to the relative abundance map generated from the federal Breeding Bird Survey’s (BBS) roadside data (Figure 1). Although scattered habitat is available throughout the Eastern Broadleaf Forest Province, the species’ predicted distribution in this region, as well as in the Tallgrass Aspen Parklands Province, is fragmented compared to the Prairie Parklands. Small, scattered patches of suitable habitat are also available in the western region of the Laurentian Mixed Forest Province. Densities are low, however, even in the most suitable habitat.
*Note that the definition of confirmed nesting of a species is different for Breeding Bird Atlas projects, including the definition used by the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas, compared with a more restrictive definition used by the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union. For details see the Data Methods Section.