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Ruff Riderz

September 1, 2009
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Most birders, either consciously or subconsciously, have a short list of birds that they really want to turn up on a day’s birding. And I don’t mean those birds that might be considered “good” birds on an average day, but the big ones. The birds inspire a lingering look in the field guide, those one who, regardless of your feelings about twitching and it’s merits, would probably have you in the car heading to god knows where on a moment’s notice should you hear the word. For me, this is a pretty short list because there are several factors involved.

Sure there are some drool-worthy pelagics I’d like to see, but pelagics are lottery birds, far too inaccessible. There’s skill involved in recognizing when they’re on the horizon, but coming across one on the high seas is a crap shoot of the highest order. And there are are some parts of North America to which I’ve never been, so even charismatic and desirable birds like White-headed Woodpecker and Great Grey Owl are, should I get the urge and the cash, only a plane ride away. No, to reach that echelon of the mystical, to get on my short list, a bird has to be both somewhat accessible and completely unpredictable. It’s a rare combination, but one that manages to manifest itself in a bizarre vagrant shorebird, the Ruff.

The Ruff was reported, by none other than one of my Young Naturalist Club friends, on Thursday at far away Lake Mattamuskeet NWR. Close enough to the weekend to hope against hope that it would stick for a couple days, but far enough out of the way that it was unclear how many birders would go chase it. A Ruff in your backyard practically begs for the chase, one three plus hours away calls for a little more reflection. What does this bird, one with a reputation for not sticking in one place for long, mean to you anyway?

Well, it just so happened that I had been wanting to get out to Mattamuskeet for shorebird for the last couple weeks anyway. A rare bird and a guest who wanted to check the place off his NC to-do list provided even greater impetus. When the bird was refound Friday, that clinched it. So very early Saturday morning we left with Ruffs on the front of our mind. It was all very exciting.

The day got off to a nice stop when, on one of the many two lane roads one must travel to get anywhere in eastern Carolina, e came across a young Black Bear. It stared at us while we got out of the car to take its photo before plopping down in the fallow field like a tired dog. Late summer in Carolina is too hot even for the wildlife it seems.

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It wasn’t long before we reached the mudflats where the Ruff had been seen the day before, or what was left of them. The winds had turned to the north, and the shorebirdy mud was slowly succumbing to the wind-blown lake water. Nonetheless, there were lots of great birds including Buff-bellied Sandpipers and American Golden-Plovers mixed in with the commoner shorebirds like Pecs, Semipalms, and Yellowlegs of both varieties. I especially enjoyed the huge Caspian Terns, larger even than the raucous Laughing Gulls that shared the mudflats.  I only wish they would have pulled their huge red beaks out.

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More birds that would have been far more unusual in the central part of the state were the two juvenile Tricolored Herons that actively hunted towards the deeper middle. They were running around like sugar-addled kindergartners, striking in what to me seemed to me to be a haphazard fashion, but they managed to bring up tiny fish every once in a while too, so who am I to judge a heron’s technique?

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As for the Ruff?  Well, it was nowhere to be seen, and despite the fact that it was a fairly significant rarity for the state, my dad and I were the only birders out there for the better part of the day.  Though a couple guys zoomed in at one point, piled out of their Land Rover in pocketed vests and fancy optics, scanned over the flats without a word to my dad or I and booked off back down the road with nothing more than a small wave.  So it goes, they likely missed the Buffy and the Red Knot, or any of the 17 species of shorebirds we did pick out of the difficult mudflats.  They did not see the Ruff, but neither did we in the end.

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But it wasn’t a total loss, a morning at Mattamuskeet seldom is, in that I turned up lots of new birds for the year if not the super-rarity I as hoping for.  Vagrants are fickle like that, it’s part of what makes them special, what keeps them on the top of that most wanted list.  I’ll turn up that Ruff one of these days, and it’ll be all the better for trips like this one.

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