The upland sandpiper, upland plover, or prairie plover is a bird of many names but of a singular horizon: one that begins with junegrass and little bluestem and ends in the Pampas of the Argentine...
It's funny how a bird becomes immortalized. A few words from Aldo Leopold fashioned the upland sandpiper as “the final proof of spring... the flight-song of the upland plover, just now back from the Argentine.” If Leopold had known his pen would garner widespread appreciation (over 2 million copies sold) beyond the lure of plover-on-toast, he might have commemorated every bird, reptile, and flower in Wisconsin. In fact, he did much more, laying forth a philosophical treatise called the land ethic, which argued for an ethical treatment of land beyond its economic value. The isolation of a spring flood, the diminutive flower of Draba, the mating ritual of woodcock, and the smoky gold of tamarack are tenants of an appreciation of wild things, a mean unto themselves.
One of Leopold's graduate students, Art Hawkins, researched upland sandpipers on the former Faville Grove Wildlife Area. Present-day Faville Grove Sanctuary encompasses much of the same land area. At that time (1939) Leopold set out to test the idea of reconnecting people to the land, so he enlisted farmers in the Lake Mills area with the idea that they could raise a farm crop as well as a game crop. Hawkins' study of Upland Sandpipers on this land contributed greatly to an understanding of their biology. In 1936 and 1937 he found 21 and 26 nests on around 250 acres, sometimes at densities of 1.5 pairs per acre.
An area of great historical importance, Faville Grove helped Leopold render his idea of a land ethic. The work of Leopold and Hawkins provides a detailed reconstruction of a generation prior, of the area before European Settlement, and it uniquely enhances the historical perspective of the land. Today, we seek to continue their legacy.
There's much work to do. Upland Sandpipers have not been seen here since the 1940's. Nor prairie chickens, nor ruffed grouse, nor forevermore passenger pigeons. Bob McCabe, another of Leopold's grad students, wrote matter-of-factly in 1940 on behalf of the wildlife area: “our prairie chickens have made their last stand...our prairie is empty of these birds.”
The upland plovers have undergone a similar population reduction in Wisconsin. A study of upland sandpipers in Wisconsin is cultural as much as ecological. Many people enjoy birds because of their diversity and because of their reflections of environmental quality. In 2014 the upland plover was upgraded from special concern to threatened in Wisconsin—a discouraging sign for our grassland management practices. On a regional scale, you can trace the success of most grassland birds to humans. Upland Sandpipers were abundant before European settlement, residing in Wisconsin's mosaic of grasslands, savannas, and barrens. Europeans brought guns and a taste for plover meat. Populations of upland sandpipers in the late 19th and early 20th century were diminishing due to unregulated hunting and constricting habitat—native prairies were almost completely eliminated by 1900. However, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, as Leopold says, “came just in time.” With protection, upland plovers found surrogate habitat in increasing pastures and hay fields. Leopold says the plover “fits easily into the agricultural countryside. He follows the black-and-white buffalo.” Upland sandpiper populations increased from the 1920's into the 1940's across the United States due to stricter hunting regulations and increasing pasturing of dairy cows. That would soon change.
From 1950 to 1978, the amount of pasture in the Wisconsin was cut in half, as farmers consolidated herds inside. Grass and hay fields were also cut in half and often replaced with alfalfa. Meanwhile, Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz was frenziedly yelling “fence row to fence row.” Marginal grassland habitat became corn or soy. Surrogate pasturelands were further reduced. More recently, hardier strains of alfalfa are able to be more frequently mowed, from twice a year to three or four times a year, spelling doom for grassland birds. Hay fields became unsuitable habitat for upland sandpipers, as they are unable to hatch a brood in such a short amount of time.
Here at Faville Grove lies hope. Hope that an upland sandpiper can once again call the Crawfish River Prairies home. Hope of a return, like the northern harriers and short-eared owls. Hope that, on a wooden fence post between Faville and Tillotson prairies, a prairie plover will rediscover its favorite roost. He will rule that domain, from fence post to fence post, to the Argentine and back.
By Drew Harry, Faville Grove Land Steward