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Nesting Ecology and Nesting Habitat Requirements of Ohio's Grassland-nesting Birds: A Literature Review

Results and Discussion


Upland Sandpiper

Upland sandpipers in Ohio are associated with grasslands, pastures, and prairies where the vegetation reaches a maximum height of 30-60 cm. Significant declines in Ohio's upland sandpiper breeding population occurred between 1940 and 1970, but populations stabilized during the 1980s (Peterjohn and Rice 1991).

Today, upland sandpipers nest in about 30 counties in the southwestern, central, and northeastern portions of Ohio. Grasslands bordering airports are the preferred nesting habitat. Upland sandpipers normally return to Ohio during April. Most clutches are laid during the first half of May and hatch by early June. Most young upland sandpipers have been observed between 25 May and 30 June; they become independent by mid-July when adults start their southward migration. Most upland sandpipers leave Ohio for the winter between 25 July and 20 August (Peterjohn 1989, Peterjohn and Rice 1991).

Upland sandpiper nests were found in oat and wheat fields (Graber and Graber 1963, Higgins 1975, Kirsch and Higgins 1976, White 1983), tallgrass prairie (Lindmeier 1960, Higgins and Kirsch 1975, Kaiser 1979, Kantrud and Higgins 1992), dry sedge meadows (Meanley 1943b, Westemeier 1989), pastures (Bent 1929, Poland 1936, Buss and Hawkins 1939, Graber and Graber 1963, Speirs and Orenstein 1965, Mitchell 1967, Bowen 1976, Kirsch and Higgins 1976, White 1983, Sample 1989, van den Driessche et al. 1994), hayfields (Goodpaster and Maslowski 1948, Lindmeier 1960, Graber and Graber 1963, Kirsch and Higgins 1976, Ailes 1980, White 1983, Sample 1989), highway rights-of-way (Oetting and Cassel 1971, White 1983), old fields (Musselman 1935, Buss and Hawkins 1939, Meanley 1943a, Graber and Graber 1963, Dorio and Grewe 1979, Ailes 1980), and the short grassy strips along airport runways (Beck 1956, White 1983, Mumford and Keller 1984, Osborne and Peterson 1984, Snyder et al. 1987, Paxton et al. 1988).

Hayfields, old fields, and moderately grazed pastures were the most important upland sandpiper nesting habitats in Wisconsin and Minnesota (Buss and Hawkins 1939, Dorio and Grewe 1979, Ailes 1980, White 1983). Cultivated cropland, in general, does not provide secure upland sandpiper nesting habitat. A 5-year survey (1969-74) of an intensively cultivated area in east-central North Dakota reported that 57% (n = 21) of upland sandpiper nests were found in untilled habitats which comprised only 7% of the study area (Higgins 1975). Wisconsin townships with nesting upland sandpipers were characterized by significantly more acreage in hay and oats, and significantly less acreage in corn, than those without nesting sandpipers (White 1983). Surveys conducted in the 1980s in Ohio (Osborne and Peterson 1984, Peterjohn and Rice 1991) and Massachusetts (Carter 1992) showed that airports had higher densities of upland sandpipers during the nesting season (May-Jul) than other grassland habitats. The short grass fields available at airports provide important nesting habitat for upland sandpipers throughout their eastern range (Snyder et al. 1987). Osborne and Peterson (1984) estimated that 75% of Ohio's upland sandpiper nesting population used airport grasslands.

Upland sandpipers selectively nest in stands of mixed grasses and forbs 15-35 cm tall and normally do not use cover >60 cm in height. Height of vegetation at nest sites was 18-35 cm (Lindmeier 1960) and 23-35 cm (Dorio and Grewe 1979) in Minnesota, 15-31 cm in North Dakota (Kirsch and Higgins 1976), 13-33 cm in South Dakota (Kaiser 1979), 15-40 cm in Wisconsin (Aires 1980), 20-35 cm in Oregon (Snyder et al.1987), and 23 cm in Missouri (Skinner 1975). No nests were found in cover >40 cm tall in Wisconsin (Aires 1980) or >61.5 cm tall in North Dakota (Kirsch and Higgins 1976). Sample (1989) reported that upland sandpipers avoided tall vegetation and that densities were negatively correlated with maximum vegetation height and vegetation height-density (Robel pole measurement [Robel et al. 1970]). In North Dakota, vegetation provided >/=50% top concealment at 82% (160 of 195) of the nests; 18% (35 of 195) of the nests had no overhead concealment (Kirsch and Higgins 1976). Bowen and Kruse (1993) found 90% (308 of 342) of upland sandpiper nests in vegetation with a height-density reading between 5 and 20 cm. Upland sandpipers avoided nesting in vegetation with a height-density reading <5 or >/=20 cm (Bowen and Kruse 1993). Mean vegetative characteristics of habitats used by nesting upland sandpipers in Wisconsin were 0.5% woody cover, 81% herbaceous vegetation cover, 15% litter cover, 4% bare ground, 45-cm maximum vegetation height, and 14-cm vegetation height-density (Sample 1989). Upland sandpiper nest sites in Canada were characterized by 75-95% grass cover, 0-5% forb cover, 5-25% litter cover, 5-25% bare ground, and 12-cm average grass height (van den Driessche et al. 1994).

Upland sandpipers tend to nest in "loose colonies" (Carter 1992) often occupying the same nesting fields in successive years (Buss and Hawkins 1939, Ailes 1980). Upland sandpiper nesting territories are generally grouped and consist of a nesting site plus an adjacent communal loafing and feeding area. Communal loafing and feeding areas were characterized by sparse vegetation no taller than the bird's back (Buss and Hawkins 1939). In Wisconsin, upland sandpipers fed in a heavily-grazed pasture where vegetation was <10 cm tall and a recently planted corn field where the corn plants were <15 cm tall (Aires and Toepfer 1977). Ailes and Toepfer (1977) reported that nesting upland sandpipers in Wisconsin fed within 450 m of the nest site. Kirsch and Higgins (1976) reported that upland sandpipers in North Dakota fed most often in moderatelygrazed pastures and avoided tall, undisturbed grass stands. Recently harvested hayfields, grain stubble, and grassy strips along airport runways also were important loafing and feeding habitats (Meanley 1943b, Beck 1956, Mitchell 1967, Mumford and Keller 1984, Osborne and Peterson 1984, Carter 1992).

Upland sandpiper brood habitat is characterized by short (<15 cm tall), open, weedy vegetation. Grassy areas with vegetation <15 cm tall (e.g., heavily-grazed pasture) were considered optimal upland sandpiper brood-rearing habitats in Wisconsin (Buss and Hawkins 1939, Ailes and Toepfer 1977, Ailes 1980). Airport grasslands were considered important upland sandpiper brood-rearing habitat throughout the eastern United States (Beck 1956, Snyder et al.1987). Broods in Illinois were observed most frequently in wheat stubble, recently mowed legumes, and moderatelygrazed pastures (Buhnerkempe and Westemeier 1988). In Wisconsin (Aires and Toepfer 1977) and Minnesota (Dorio and Grewe 1979), overgrazed pastures were considered the most important brood-rearing habitat during the first 4 weeks posthatching, whereas mowed hayfields and old fields were most important in late summer. In South Dakota, brood use was greatest in recently burned fields with short, open new growth and little or no litter or old growth (Huber and Steuter 1984). Daily movements of broods were short (<100 m) and summer home range size was small (8 ha in Maine [Vickery et al.1994], <20 ha in Illinois [Buhnerkempe and Westemeier 1988], and 20-40 ha in Wisconsin [Aires 1980]), indicating the need for well interspersed nesting and brood-rearing habitats.

Tate (1986) attributed the decline of upland sandpipers throughout their eastern range to the succession of old field habitats to forest. In Wisconsin, upland sandpipers avoided woody vegetation (Buss and Hawkins 1939, Sample 1989) and nesting densities were negatively correlated with total cover of woody vegetation (Sample 1989). Woody vegetation was best controlled by mowing or burning every 2-5 years (Kirsch 1974, Carter 1992).

Without management, seeded stands of cool-season grasses grew too tall for upland sandpipers (Kirsch and Higgins 1976, Buhnerkempe and Westemeier 1988). Management of cool-season grasses for upland sandpiper breeding habitat should include a 3-year rotation of rotary mowing to a height of 10-15 cm, no disturbance, and prescribed burning; seedings should be allowed to reach 10-12 years of age before reseeding (Buhnerkempe and Westemeier 1988).

In Illinois, upland sandpipers nested in fields that had been rotary mowed or burned the previous summer or fall (Westemeier 1989). Ailes (1980) noted that hayfields used by upland sandpipers for nesting and brood rearing in Wisconsin had been mowed the previous year and vegetation height was 10-15 cm at the time of nest initiation. Carter (1992) suggested that vegetation in mowed grasslands be 10-20 cm tall at the time of the birds' spring arrival. Mowing of upland sandpiper nesting and brood-rearing habitats should be delayed until after 1 August to avoid destruction of nests and chicks (Buhnerkempe and Westemeier 1988).

Grazing was considered detrimental to upland sandpipers in Maryland (Meanley 1943a), Wisconsin (Buss and Hawkins 1939, Mitchell 1967), and North Dakota (Kirsch and Higgins 1976, Higgins et al. 1984). In Missouri (Skinner 1975) and Kansas (Bowen 1976), upland sandpipers nested exclusively in tallgrass prairie grazed year-round by cows and calves. Moderate spring grazing, where 33-67% of the current year's growth was removed, did not reduce nesting density or nest success of upland sandpipers in South Dakota (Kaiser 1979).

Upland sandpipers used grazed fields for brood rearing (Aires 1980), foraging (Aires and Toepfer 1977, Ryder 1980, McNicholl 1988), loafing (McNicholl 1988), and nesting (Bowen 1976, Ailes and Toepfer 1977, Kaiser 1979, Ailes 1980, Kantrud 1981, Kantrud and Kologiski 1982). Bowen and Kruse (1993) evaluated the effects of various grazing regimes on the nesting biology of upland sandpipers in North Dakota. Fields that were grazed during the nesting season (autumn-and-spring, season-long, and spring) had lower nesting densities than did fields with no cattle present during the nesting season (control and autumn). Nest success in fields with May-June grazing and high stocking rates was lower than in control fields. Kirsch and Higgins (1976) and Kantrud and Higgins (1992) also reported lower nest success of upland sandpipers in grazed than ungraded fields. Bowen and Kruse (1993) concluded that grazing during late spring and early autumn, a traditional grassland management practice, had a detrimental impact on nesting density and nest success of upland sandpipers in North Dakota. They recommended that grazing be delayed until nesting is well underway in mid- to late June. Traditional season-long grazing, June through October, at a low-stocking density, should be avoided on grasslands managed for upland sandpipers.

In Wisconsin pastures, Buss and Hawkins (1939) reported that 23% (11 of 47) of the upland sandpiper nests were trampled by cattle. Bowen and Kruse (1993) reported that 2% (2 of 95) of the upland sandpiper nest losses were the result of livestock trampling. In the latter study, lower nesting densities and nest success in fields with spring and autumn-and-spring grazing were attributed to the large percentage of the vegetation being in the lowest height-density category (<5 cm) which was avoided by nesting upland sandpipers.

Higgins (1975) compared upland sandpiper nest success among grazed, prescribed burned, and undisturbed mixed-grass prairie in North Dakota. Nest success was 71% on the burned and undisturbed prairie and 48% on the grazed prairie. The number of successful nests/40 ha was 5 times higher in the burned habitat than in the grazed habitat and 2 times higher in the undisturbed habitat than in the grazed habitat.

Kirsch (1974) believed that prescribed burning was the best management tool for maintaining upland sandpiper nest-brood habitat. He recommended burning at 3-5 year intervals. Where burning was not possible, he suggested rotational mowing, leaving 65-75% of the area unmowed each year. Higgins (1975) cautioned that because grasslands managed by fire require periods of rest for vegetation regrowth and residual cover accumulation, they should not be burned at intervals <2 years.

In North Dakota, grasslands burned in early May at 3-year intervals were considered the most beneficial to upland sandpipers (Kirsch and Higgins 1976). For optimal upland sandpiper nest-brood habitat, Kirsch (1974) recommended March burns for warm-season grasses and legumes, August burns for cool-season grasses, and early May burns for brome grass (Bromus spp.) and alfalfa.

Use of burned versus unburned grassland by nesting upland sandpipers was compared in several studies, with varying results. In North Dakota, grazed and burned pastures received more use by nesting upland sandpipers than ungrazed or unburned pastures (Kirsch and Higgins 1976). Zimmerman (1992) found upland sandpiper nesting densities twice as high in recently burned compared to unburned prairies in Kansas. In South Dakota, Huber and Steuter (1984) reported that upland sandpipers made greater use of a spring-burned (3 May) 122-ha pasture than an unburned 462-ha pasture during June and July. Bowen (1976), however, reported that nesting densities of upland sandpipers in Kansas were significantly higher in unburned than burned pastures. Lindmeier (1960) reported a 67% reduction in nesting density of upland sandpipers in a shortgrass prairie in Minnesota after 75% of the residual cover was removed by a mid-May burn.

Burning pastures in Kansas increased food availability and the feeding efficiency of upland sandpipers (Bowen 1976). Kirsch (1974) reported significant increases in insect biomass, especially grasshoppers, seed and fruit production, and plant variety on burned grasslands in North Dakota.

Upland sandpipers are highly sensitive to habitat fragmentation and generally restrict nesting to large (>50 ha) tracts of contiguous habitat (Herkert 1991, Herkert et al. 1993). In Maine, upland sandpipers were rare on sites <50 ha but incidence increased steadily with area and reached 50% at about 200 ha (Vickery et al. 1994). In Illinois, upland sandpipers were not found on grassland tracts <30 ha and reached 50% incidence in the 30-100-ha size class (Herkert 1991). Samson (1980) concluded that 10-100 ha of contiguous grassland habitat represented the minimum area required to maintain a viable breeding population of upland sandpipers.


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