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30 A Song of Wind and Changing Seasons Spring burning season on the prairie coincides with the sound of upland sandpipers overhead, the males proclaiming the nesting territory they’ll protect following a winter in South America. The migration journey, from as far away as the pampas of Argentina, covers thousands of miles, many of them over open water. Therefore these international aviators eagerly drop out of the sky, content to stride on long yellow legs across blackened grassland, seeking a tidbit that’s generally very well done but tasty to a veteran traveler. The birds return to the newly greening earth amid the earliest of the ground-hugging spring flowers. Sometimes it’s a sunny day when a warm south wind pours over the prairie and ambient birdsong seems riotous. Yet just as often it’s a day that’s steely silent when winter lingers raw and bitter, the season strung out on low dark clouds and north winds that hint of snow rather than violets and buttercups. Either way, these voyagers from the Southern Hemisphere descend upon the tallgrass on the wings of rapid change. It’s as if upland sandpipers actually believe that these remaining native prairies, these limestone hills of Kansas and northern Oklahoma, are programmed to erupt into seasonal change immediately upon their arrival. If a bird’s sheer biological presence could somehow manage the comings 31 A Song of Wind and Changing Seasons and goings of the seasons, then the flight of these intercontinental migrants with their boomerang wings would tug at the Earth in its orbit, transforming raw prairies into a perfect place for transients with nesting duties to perform. Lengthening daylight demands urgency from grassland-loving shorebirds that leave South American wintering grounds in February, arrive on the Texas Gulf Coast by March, and then spread out across America’s grassland interior, intent upon the serious business of establishing nesting territory by late March or early April. Their arrival coincides with the first rapidly greening grasses and early flowering forbs.Upland sandpipers exhibit a sense of purpose that devours miles and endures storms. Theirs is the total commitment of a marathon flier that may weigh up to seven ounces, stand twelve inches tall, and journey across continents on wings that stretch tip to tip to around twenty inches. A drab mix of buff, brown, and gray, the upland sandpiper shares the muted plumage of most of its shorebird clan. Yet it’s a marvel of flight with a voice to match, most notably when broadcasting sandpiper song above spring meadows in a stirring liquid vibrato, insisting that it’s time for the world to reawaken now that an undeniable sandpiper presence has arrived to set up housekeeping. Some of the sandpipers return to the prairie already paired, many to the same annual nesting area in this wide, rolling expanse of shallow rock and native grasses. Oftentimes the new arrivals prefer to oversee their surroundings from atop a handy fence post. Such perches of weathered wood or rusty steel generally offer the most prominent vertical objects in a typically horizontal landscape. The birds settle on top of each perch on spindly legs and, upon landing, keep both wings vertical for just a moment, as if uncertain what to do with them. Next the birds fold each wing carefully. It seems a conscious effort, like a fussy mother rearranging clothes after they’ve been tossed aside by a self-absorbed teenager. Yet the wing-folding ritual pales before the territorial flight and the sweet, sad music that accompanies each fluttering circle among earth, clouds, and sun. The flight to their prairie nesting grounds is direct and strong, and the birds are equipped with an admirable wingspan designed to accomplish such a task. Upon arrival, time spent airborne revolves around the perimeter of each sandpiper’s chosen territory. The birds practically hover at times on stiff, rapidly vibrating wings, more like hummingbirds than transoceanic travelers. And while its flight may 32 A Song of Wind and Changing Seasons spiral upward so high that the sandpiper gets lost against the clouds, its haunting call never seems to fade from hearing. Upland sandpiper song begins with a bubbly, rising tremolo that suddenly breaks into a long,shrill wolf whistle,the key minor,the pitch high. It’s a sound that can cause kids fishing along the banks of farm ponds to stare skyward, even as their bobbers dance a catfish jig. The cry of the upland sandpiper...


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MARC Record
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