San Diego Natural History Museum--Your Nature Connection[BRCC San Diego Natural History Museum: Herpetology Department]
Birds and Mammals

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Field Guide

A Bird New to San Diego County
by Philip Unitt, Collection Manager, Birds and Mammals Department

Upland Sandpiper, photographed by Even though we still have much to learn about the details of the birdlife of San Diego County, we have an almost complete knowledge of the basic list of species occurring here. The only species of birds still being added to the county's inventory are pioneers expanding their ranges and vagrants wandering away from their normal migratory routes. Birdwatchers have been searching assiduously for vagrants in San Diego County for nearly 40 years, so new additions come more and more slowly. The only one so far in 1999 is the Upland Sandpiper (Bartramia longicauda).

The Upland Sandpiper nests mainly in the prairie region of central North America, sparsely as far west as eastern Oregon. It migrates to the pampas of Argentina, Uruguay, and southernmost Brazil for the winter. Its normal migration route is far to the east of California. Unusual for a sandpiper, it lives in dry habitats at all seasons. Rather than probing in the mud for food like most of its relatives, it picks insects from the tips of blades of grass by quickly extending its neck. The Upland Sandpiper is easily distinguished from other shorebirds by its this behavior and its unique shape: long slender neck, large dark eye, comparatively short bill, and comparatively long tail.

While not an endangered species, the Upland Sandpiper has declined in numbers over much of its range, almost disappearing from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.

San Diego County's first Upland Sandpiper was found by Guy McCaskie, long one of California's leading finders of vagrant birds. Indeed, it was Guy who discovered that North American birds of many species regularly deviate from their normal migration routes. Such vagrants show up especially in the fall, when inexperienced young birds making their first migration may suffer from defective orientation skills.

On discovering the Upland Sandpiper, Guy immediately recruited other qualified birdwatchers to come see and photograph it. Records of such vagrants must be supported by the field notes of multiple observers and by photographs, if not by a specimen, if the observation is to be of lasting scientific value. Fortunately, this Upland Sandpiper stayed for five days, to be enjoyed by many birders, before continuing its migration.

Guy contributed the following article for Wrenderings, the newsletter of the San Diego County Bird Atlas project, which can also be read on this website.

The Story of the Upland Sandpiper

On Tuesday 19 October 1999, before going home after work, I dropped by the Tijuana River valley to see what birds were frequenting the Am-Sod farm east of Dairy Mart Road (W11). A Chestnut-collared Longspur had been found among the Horned Larks on Sunday, and there were enough pipits to warrant a careful look for a Red-throated. As I was driving along the east-west road that cuts across the sod farm, I saw a medium-sized brownish shorebird on my right and immediately recognized it as an Upland Sandpiper. The time was about 4:30 PM, so I knew birders must be alerted immediately if anyone was to confirm my sighting before dark. I drove directly to the nearest pay telephone and called the San Diego Rare Bird Alert and four birders who would make an effort to see the bird before sunset. I then returned to the sod farm, relocated the sandpiper, and kept it under observation until Doug Aguillard, Elizabeth Copper, Rosanne Rowlett, and Richard Webster arrived. The bird was most cooperative, walking to within a few feet of us, and appearing oblivious of the farm workers. Unfortunately none of us had a camera, so written descriptions were the only documentation. At about 5:30 PM the sandpiper called a couple of times, jumped up into the air, gained altitude, and disappeared from view as it headed north over residential San Ysidro.

Knowing the track record of previous Upland Sandpipers in California, I was unable to give Pete Ginsburg much encouragement when he arrived about ten minutes later. Of the fifteen (seven spring and eight fall) previously known to have reached California, only three remained more than one day—single birds at Furnace Creek Ranch in Death Valley in May of 1980 and 1985 each remained two days, and one near Oxnard in Ventura County in September 1990 remained for five days. Fortunately for San Diego and southern California birders, this Upland Sandpiper returned the following day and remained through Saturday, being seen by numerous observers and well photographed.

This is the first Upland Sandpiper to be found in San Diego County, the latest ever in fall (previous latest was one in Twentynine Palms in San Bernardino County on 28 September 1994), and equaling the longest stay known. I consider myself most fortunate to have found this delightful and distinctive bird.

Upland Sandpiper photo © Jack Schlotte 1999