Ruffing It

Summer means shorebirds. Sandpipers and their kin are some of the first southbound travelers to show up each year, with the earliest arrivals appearing not long after the last northbound passersby trickle through. The time period from July through September provides a bonanza of marathon migrants for naturalists brave enough to fight the heat, mud, and bugs found at typical shorebird stopover sites. These “refuel stations” host huge numbers of common species, and it’s always worth a careful scan for something more unusual.

On Thursday, a got a curious text from a group messaging system set up by Ed Becher. A number I didn’t recognize was claiming two male Ruffs at Jamaica Bay’s East Pond. Brendan and I speculated about the validity of the observation and the identity of the observer, but there was no follow up information reported. Friday came and went, and the mystery sighting was mostly swept aside by the busy end of the week. On Saturday, Ed himself texted to say that Ken Feustel had “re”-discovered a snappy-looking Ruff in the same spot. Ah HA!

Ruffs are a European species, one of the semi-rarities that crop up in North America annually in small numbers. I have missed many Long Island visitors due to vacations and field work, and I have unsuccessfully chased them in the past, too. This time I had nothing better to do, the location wasn’t far, and the target was allegedly a handsome individual in nearly-full breeding garb. There were also a few other unusual birds hanging around the refuge, including a vagrant White-faced Ibis and a lingering Acadian Flycatcher. The hunt was afoot, again!

A number of birders were on site, and I teamed up with Ed and Tripper to search the area. We stopped by the Barn Owl box, and we heard the Acadian calling from tangled vegetation, but we struggled to locate our primary focus bird. Someone said it was seen at the south end, and when we arrived there a report came in from the north end. It was last spotted moving south at a good clip, so our gang dashed to an overlook near Big John’s Pond that provides good views in all directions.

Things got tense for a little while, and I feared that I was to be cursed with yet another shorebird nemesis. Fortunately, Ed picked up the bird in flight and called out to the rest of the group. I watched it swoop in to the shoreline and start frantically working its way south, picking at scraps of food along the way. It was a pretty sharp bird, and I got excellent life looks through the assembled scopes. Unfortunately, my camera was a little less capable, but I managed to snap some record shots that show the distinctive coloration and profile of this species.

Word went out that the White-faced Ibis had been relocated with some Glossies at the southern shore, so Ed and I made our way down to find a sizable crowd of birders on site. Once I got my glass on the white-trimmed, red facial skin to confirm the ID, I took the opportunity to catch up with Shai, Baksh, and the others I hadn’t seen in a while. I soon headed across the Cross Bay to check the West Pond with Shai for a bit. After helping him pin down his first Tricolored Heron of 2016, we talked at length about birding, teaching, and the remainder of the year ahead. I left for home on a high note, having bagged all of my target species with a rarity hat trick.

When I returned to Jamaica Bay on Sunday with Dad, many of the other creatures on the refuge were kind enough to pose for better photographs than the Ruff had allowed. We spotted many wading birds, including Snowy and Great Egrets and another Glossy Ibis…

…a recently-fledged Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, who amused itself and us with a performance involving a stray twig…

…several other denizens of Big John’s Pond, the most accommodating being Painted Turtles and Barn Swallows…

…and, of course, the resident Barn Owls. Dad has not seen one of these birds since our shared first sighting: a glimpse of a ghost flying through the car’s headlights during a 2005 roadtrip in California. I’ve been trying to find the opportunity for a visit to the blind with him since the owlets were eggs, but this was the first mutual schedule opening we could capitalize on.

When we finally arrived at Big John’s, I couldn’t see any sign of the conspicuous, close-quarters action I’d observed inside the box earlier in the week. Word among the assembled birders was that at least some of the chicks had apparently fledged, but there was still an individual hiding out of sight in the nest. Even better, an owl was resting in a birch tree across the pond from the cavity. I set up my scope, and we got good views through the swaying, leafy branches as the bird stirred and shuffled on its perch.

Swaying in the Breeze

A brief stop-and-scan of the East Pond failed to relocate the Ruff, but it was hard to complain with yesterday’s victory and two successful outings under my belt. There’s sure to be more excitement at Jamaica Bay in the coming months, and I’m eager to see what the next cycle of migration brings to our fair island.

Year List Update, June 25 – 329 Species (+ Ruff)

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About timhealz

A recent graduate (Cornell '14) and lifelong explorer cataloging my thoughts and travels.
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