Most people think of sandpipers as smaller shorebirds usually seen feeding on beaches or mud flats. The upland sandpiper, as its name implies, doesn’t relate to water much at all. Instead, it frequents grassy uplands. The upland sandpiper is a pigeon-sized brown bird, but with a longer neck and longer yellowish legs. It’s call is a distinctive series of musical warbles and whistles that’s quite unlike other sandpipers. I found the sound haunting and unforgettable when I first heard it drifting out of the morning fog on a large northwestern Minnesota prairie remnant many years ago. It was never common in the more wooded southern and eastern parts of Iowa, and has become considerably less common over the rest of the state since the 1950s due to the nearly 100 percent conversion of our agricultural land to row crops. I have seen only a handful in my life. The first one I have seen in years appeared perched on a power pole about a mile south of Hickory Grove Lake early in August. They are among the earliest of fall migrants, and this one was probably on its way to where it will eventually winter in South America.
Upland sandpipers prefer somewhat shorter grass than Iowa’s typical tall-grass prairie, but they would have been pretty common on drier ridges, pastures, and even in small grain and hay fields that were so much a part of early Iowa agriculture. They are still fairly common nesting birds on the Great Plains to our north and west, at least where grasslands still dominate. A few still nest in Iowa each summer where there’s shorter grass meadow type habitat to support them, and a few still nest in scattered grassy openings like major airports clear to the East Coast.
Another sighting worth sharing occurred while Sue and I enjoyed an early morning in the boat on Hickory Grove Lake. A flock of at least a dozen white pelicans were on the water, no doubt trying to catch some of the same pan fish (crappies and bluegills) that we were after. They, too, were beginning their fall migration, but, unlike the upland sandpiper, their numbers are increasing. In fact, white pelicans have returned to Iowa as nesting birds. Several islands in the Mississippi River now support nesting colonies.
White pelicans are among the world’s largest flying birds with wingspans of up to 10 feet and weights of over 25 pounds. Only the rare California condor has a larger wingspan in North America. A large nesting colony can contain thousands of birds. Some of the larger prairie lakes in Iowa supported nesting colonies when settlement began in the mid-1800s. Although pelican flesh wasn’t popular table fare due to their fish diet, they were shot for their feathers and their eggs were harvested as a welcome protein supplement to the diets of Indians and settlers. They survived feather hunting and egg harvesting, but their populations plummeted with the introduction of pesticides like DDT that ended up in the fish they ate and bio-accumulated in their bodies. Like eagles and peregrine falcons, DDT caused their egg shells to became so thin that they broke before they could hatch. Discontinuing the use of DDT allowed populations of these species to recover.
You probably won’t see or hear an upland sandpiper unless you’re lucky, but it’s likely that Ada Hayden Lake will host some migrating pelicans for a few days in the weeks ahead. Large flocks of them usually spend part of the fall on the upper end of Saylorville Reservoir, north of the mile-long bridge, too. Watch for migrating flocks soaring in circles high above and sparkling like confetti against the blue sky as the sun catches those magnificent 10-foot wings.
Steve Lekwa is the former director of Story County Conservation. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.