Inland Shorebirds of the Pleistocene

The Scolopacidae family includes birds that are commonly considered denizens of the sea shore, such as sandpipers and curlews, but 3 species are primarily terrestrial inhabitants.  The upland sandpiper (Bartramia longicauda), also known as the golden plover or Bartram’s plover, is the one most easily recognizable as a relative of its familiar sea shore cousins.   However, it preferes grassy environments where it feeds upon insects and grass seeds instead of marine worms, clams, and fiddler crabs.  Upland sandpipers were formerly an abundant bird of the prairies on the Great Plains and in the midwest, but market hunting destroyed the primeval population, and farmers replaced prairie grasses with fields of wheat and corn that are unsuitable habitats for this bird.  In March 1821 just 1 market hunter killed 48,000 upland sandpipers, demonstrating how abundant they used to be.  (They were regarded as a delicacy by Creole cooks.)  This bird will never regain its former abundance, but the remaining population is adapting to new anthropogenic grasslands–abandoned strip mines and airports.  

Upland sandpiper.  They are a ground nesting bird that feigns injury to draw predators away from their eggs and nestlings.

The upland sandpiper is a summer migrant to North America, and it winters on the Pampas of South America.  Aside from an occasional vagrant, this bird is presently absent from the southeast, but it was a common species in this region during the Pleistocene.  Fossil evidence of upland sandpipers, dating to the late Pleistocene, were found in Kingston Saltpeter Cave, Bartow County, Georgia and in Bell Cave in Northern Alabama.  This geographical area was mostly forested then, but extensive grasslands must have also existed because upland sandpipers favor nearly treeless habitats.

Both the above mentioned fossil sites yielded remains of the woodcock (Scolopax minor) as well, another terrestrial member of the Scolopacidae.  This bird uses its unusually long bill to probe moist earth for worms and grubs.  They are year round residents in the south, but much of the population migrates north for the summer.

Woodcock.  In Ohio they are arriving a month earlier in spring than they did 100 years ago due to global warming.

Woodcocks spend their days hiding in the woods but feed in open areas at night.  They favor 2nd growth woods with thickets that are adjacent to agricultural fields where they can hunt for earthworms in the tilled soil.  Like upland sandpipers, woodcocks are much less common than they used to be because of hunting and habitat loss.  In the Pleistocene south woodcocks likely were abundant because megafauna foraging and sudden climate fluctuations created mixed environments of young and old forests, thickets, and grasslands.  Moreover, large predators such as wolves and big cats kept numbers of foxes, raccoons, and possums relatively low, reducing nest predation.  The south was a refuge for woodcocks during the height of the Ice Age.  Genetic studies suggest the woodcock population expanded rapidly following the retreat of the glaciers as more habitat became available.

Male woodcocks display by making a “peent” call before flying in wide spirals above their potential mates.  The females lay eggs on the ground and carry their young with them for 18 days until the nestling learns to fly.  Then in late summer when they moult, woodcocks can’t fly and must hide in thickets, thus explaining why they need varied habitats.

Wilson’s snipe (Gallinago delicata) is another species of terrestrial Scolopacidae.  They live and nest in marshes where they hunt for worms, grubs, insects, and some plant matter.  They are an erratic fast flyer, making them difficult to shoot, hence the origin of the word, sniper.  Wilson’s snipes have a curious pattern of migration.  They winter in the southeast as well as in South America and migrate over dry land in the late winter and early spring.  But when they migrate south, they travel over the coast.  This explains why there are an additional 9 species of snipe endemic to various islands.  Storms blew some flocks off course where they found permanent refuge on isolated oceanic islands.

Wilson’s snipe–a marsh bird.  Their habit of migrating south over the coast has resulted in speciation on isolated islands.

Even some coastal species of Scolopacidae occasionally find their way far inland.  Joel McNeal photographed stilt-legged sandpipers, lesser yellowlegs, black necked stilts, pectoral sandpipers, long-billed dowitchers, American avocets, western sandpipers, and semi-palmated sandpipers foraging on the sod farm that surrounds the Etowah Indian Mounds in Bartow County.  Here’s a link to his photos. http://www.pbase.com/joelmcneal/bartowbirds

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2 Responses to “Inland Shorebirds of the Pleistocene”

  1. Jason Says:

    Nice blog… and playlist. I look for artifacts all the time. Last Sunday I found a nice archaic point in a small ditch. It rained yesterday so of course I went back. I had found fire rock last year so I knew a site was near. Today I found a large tooth. I’m thinking its a horse tooth. Are you familiar with them? Can I email you some pics?

  2. markgelbart Says:

    Where are you finding the artifacts and fossils?

    Sure, you can send me a photo to iceage4058 @att. net

    Horse teeth are pretty easy to ID, but I suggest you also post the photo at the Fossil Forum, Fossil ID section here:

    http://www.thefossilforum.com/index.php?/forum/14-fossil-id/

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