Juvenile Ruff at Don Edwards NWR, photo by Alex Lamoreaux

SPECIES SPOTLIGHT: Ruff Trifecta!

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Jun 6, 2020 | by Alex Lamoreaux

As birders we are all about finding the new bird – for our life lists, for our county lists, or purely because a certain species catches our eye and piques our interest. But have you ever noticed that you can be searching for a particular bird for years, and never see it, but then that fateful day finally comes and not only do you find your nemesis bird, but then it seems like you can’t get away from it?!

Juvenile Ruff at Chrissy Field in San Francisco, photo by Alex Lamoreaux

Well, during our 2019 CALIFORNIA: Central Coast tour that exact thing played out for our group in the form of 3 Ruff sightings in 3 consecutive days! This stately Eurasian shorebird would have been a lifer for almost all the tour’s participants that year, and when everyone arrived in San Jose, I quickly gathered them up from the airport and we set off for San Francisco to chase a juvenile Ruff that had been staked out at the Chrissy Field Lagoon for the past few days. Not only would this be a fantastic rarity to check off for our tour, it was also be a great excuse to soak in some of the sights and sounds of San Francisco!

In just under an hour we had raced through the city traffic and were standing along the beach at Chrissy Field, staring out onto San Francisco Bay. The famous Golden Gate Bridge shining red off to our left, the prison island of Alcatraz off to our right, and dozens of Brown Pelicans and Brandt’s Cormorant streaming past low to the white-capped waters. A flock of 70 Elegant Terns gracefully winged past us, and a nice assortment of waders were gathered in the lagoon – Snowy Egret, Long-billed Curlew, and Black-crowned Night-Heron. We headed for the boardwalk and began scanning the marshy shoreline for any sign of the Ruff. At first we couldn’t find it, and I was getting a little nervous, but sure enough it eventually wandered into view as it intently foraged through the shallow water. Congrats and high-fives all around, and everyone was busy clicking off photos and viewing the bird through scopes! These medium-sized shorebirds are elegant and intricately-patterned making for a really beautiful bird with some Eurasian flare. Content with our sighting, we set off to visit Fort Mason and the pond at the Palace of Fine Arts, and then took a winding trip down Lombard Street – one of the ‘crookedest’ street in America with 8 switchbacks in one block!

Group selfie with an incredibly photogenic Ruff at Don Edwards NWR

The second day of our tour, September 3rd, began at Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge along the southern shoreline of San Francisco Bay. We were out bright and early to explore the scrublands and saltmarshes throughout the refuge, and were racking up a nice list of well over 50 species of waterfowl, shorebirds, and various songbirds. And then suddenly I noticed a larger shorebird shoot past us with cinnamon coloration and a broad white V on its rump! This could only be one thing – another juvenile Ruff! Holy crow! I frantically yelled out “Ruff!” and everyone was able to get it in their binos as it flew directly away from us. I watched it as long as I could and thought it went down into a distant impoundment, so we power-walked in that direction. Getting near the spot, we briefly viewed the Ruff and confirmed the ID as it foraged with a few American Avocet but then it irrupted into flight and was off again. This time we could see it set down near a boardwalk, and again we hustled over for a closer look. This time, the Ruff was content with its choice of habitat and settled in to forage right in front of us – sometimes within 10 feet! Our second Ruff of the trip!

Juvenile Ruff at Don Edwards NWR, photo by Alex Lamoreaux

Juvenile Ruff in flight at Moonglow Dairy, photo by Alex Lamoreaux

The third day of our tour took us to the magical Monterey Bay. Spending time in this coastal town and exploring the deep bay for a day-long pelagic trip is not only a highlight of this tour, but a true highlight of each year for me! On the afternoon of September 4th we arrived in Monterey and immediately went to Moonglow Dairy in search of the endemic, range-restricted, and threatened Tricolored Blackbird. These blackbirds (close relatives to Red-winged Blackbirds) gather at the dairy to feed on spilled grain, and we were instantly in a flurry of blackbirds as we approached the cattle troughs! At least 1,200 Tricolored Blackbirds were present in addition to 40 ‘Bicolored’ Red-winged Blackbird, 200 Brown-headed Cowbirds, 50 Brewer’s Blackbirds, and about 1 million flies! Around the backside of the dairy, there is a large poo-pond along the shoreline of Elkhorn Slough. This is a famous location for rare shorebirds, and it certainly lived up to that reputation when I spotted – you guessed it – ANOTHER juvenile Ruff! None of us could believe our eyes, and in fact one of our clients thought I was joking! It wasn’t a joke though; we had somehow found 3 different juvenile Ruff in 3 days! Another birder arrived a few minutes later and said, “I heard there are 2 other Ruff in the Bay Area right now..” and we said “Yea! And we found 2 of them and saw all 3!“. And so that’s the story of our incredible ‘Ruff Trifecta’ along the Central Coast of California in 2019!

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