I would do anything for Ruff (but I won’t do that)
How far are willing to go as birders for that special bird? The one who wings across our dreams. Whose painting in the field guide quickens our pulse and whose mere mention on the birding listserve immediately initiates DefCon 1. This was the question running through my mind as I pulled my scope out of the car in the pre-dawn darkness and prepared to take off down the poorly marked trail though the deep dark woods that led to the shore of Jordan Lake. Only the first leg of a 2 mile hike though the muddy mucky lakeshore that would lead to a recently exposed mudflat. And all this on a workday.
I got the word Tuesday night. The laptop perched on the coffee table while the wife and I watched the Olympics and wound down. The email came innocuously enough, from a longtime contributor and excellent birder. But the subject line held a bombshell. Four letters. All caps.
Oh, that bird. Easily on my top five most wanted in the ABA area. And practically in my front yard even. Birds like this tend not to stick around long. I had to work tomorrow, but not until 10, though my bus came at 9:30. I might be able to make this work, I began to get ideas.
And that’s what brought me to be trudging through the mud for an hour to get to the exposed flats for 30 minutes of searching before turning around and making the return trip. These mudflats were very same place that was so fantastic for shorebirds last year, though with our slightly better drought outlook this year compared to last, you have to walk farther to get the same effect.
The long walk, weighed down as I was with optics, was mostly uneventful, typical August land-birding. I had bigger fish to fry anyway, no time for gnatcatchers and wrens. As I neared my destination the water began to shallow, and the lake was filled with Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets, each flushing on approach and squawking their displeasure at being disturbed so early in the morning. It wasn’t long then, before I reached the real mudflats, and my race against the clock began. I had half an hour to find my Ruff before having to head back to get home in time to clean up and make my bus to work.
The mudflats were actually pretty busy. I found several birds I had missed on my Big Year so far, including Lesser Yellowlegs, Solitary Sandpipers, Pectoral Sandpipers and Blue-winged Teal, in addition to the regular Leasts, Spotties, and Wood Ducks. Best of all I found a foraging group of Short-billed Dowitchers* than included a couple Stilt Sandpipers, offering a cool juxtaposition of feeding styles between two species that I admit, I actually have trouble picking up on the differences sometimes, especially at distance. I took a pretty terrible picture of them below. Enjoy at your discretion.
*Edit: Actually, now that I’ve cropped those photos, these kind of look like Long-billed Dowitchers. The flanks seem clean and the back looks hunched. This would be a new year bird for me. Anyone out there have any opinions?
But time, she waits for no man, not even one looking for a rare shorebirds, and it wasn’t long before I had to turn back and make the long walk back to my car. I managed to to get back in time to catch my bus to work, mucking up a good pair of shoes in the process, but I never got the Ruff, and to my surprise, I never even heard whether anyone else went out that morning to find it. I kind of expected at least one other birder, but maybe people just aren’t as dedicated (by which I mean crazy) as me.
The mudflats at Jordan Lake being as ephemeral as they are, are just barely exposed by the falling water levels, and as such are susceptible to being swamped once again by a big rain, scattering the shorebirds to the four winds. I had hoped that such weather would stay away, but yesterday a soaking rain hit the triangle. My opportunity to get the bird may have passed. But that’s the cross the working birder has to bear, birds or work? Any other week I might be able to swing the balance towards birds, but this week, my boss is gone and I’m running the show, I couldn’t risk it. I won’t do that.
Here’s hoping the Ruff gets re-found. This birding thing, it can be cruel.
Update: So here’s the deal and a lesson that even very good birders can make mistakes. Yesterday evening a message went out to carolinabirds from the Ruff-finder that the “Ruff” was actually a mistaken ID on a very short-billed, very buffy, juvi Stilt Sandpiper. Probably one looking remarkably like the one in the photo I took above. So no Ruff, which is sad, but at least I don’t have to kick myself for missing it…