One afternoon, late in July, several years ago, I was driving on a country road in southern Lebanon County. Suddenly, a group of a dozen dove-sized birds flew swiftly and low across the road, close in front of me.

They were brown and had long, swept-back wings; they landed in tall grass, where they promptly disappeared. I couldn’t identify them at the time, but after checking a couple of field guides to eastern birds, I knew they were upland sandpipers, a kind of inland, grass-field shorebird. 

Apparently those upland sandpipers raised young in that tall-grass field. But when I saw them, they were ready to migrate south to the vast, grassy pampas of Argentina to escape the northern winter and find invertebrate food. 

Most kinds of sandpipers rear offspring on the Arctic tundra and spend the rest of the year on beaches and mudflats looking for invertebrates. But upland sandpipers hatch young on the ground of large acreages of tall-grass fields and meadows, which are rare in southeastern Pennsylvania.

Uplanders arrive on grasslands and prairies in the northeastern and northcentral United States and southcentral Canada in the middle of April, ready to mate and lay four eggs per clutch.

Upon arriving on an extensive, tall-grass habitat, each male uplander flies high in the sky, floats on uplifting breezes, and sings several unique, eerie whistles that run up the scale, then down, “wooooeeeeee-weeeeooooooo,” like long, spine-chilling wolf whistles, each one followed by several sharp notes.

Then he quickly swoops to the ground and lands on a fencepost or a roadside wire, where he briefly lifts his wings, then folds them away. That distinctive whistling and posturing is performed to get the attention of female upland sandpipers and put them in the mood for mating and laying eggs.

Because upland sandpipers adapted to a habitat different from that of their many relatives, they have nesting territories free of competition for space and food from those cousins.

And that tall-grass habitat made uplanders what they are, including being brown and dark-streaked, which camouflages them among tall grass.

Their beaks are shorter and less sturdy than those of most sandpipers because they don’t poke them into sand or mud to get food. Adults and young pick invertebrates off grass stems.

Their dark, attractive eyes are large, which helps them spot food. And they have long legs for walking through tall grass.   

The handsome upland sandpipers have lost nesting grounds because of agricultural practices that remove large acreages of tall grass. But the species is hanging on, especially in the American Midwest.

I see a few migrants in our area’s harvested hayfields each August. But even if these attractive sandpipers are not seen by some people, it’s still good to know they exist.   


Clyde McMillan-Gamber is a retired Lancaster County Parks naturalist.

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