‘A SADNESS OF SHEARWATERS’ ON ABACO: UNWELCOME NEWS


Audobon's_Shearwater - Dominic Sherony wiki

‘A SADNESS OF SHEARWATERS’ ON ABACO

If you are walking your favourite beach on Abaco right now, it’s quite possible you may see – or may already have seen – a very poorly seabird. Or one that is dead, I’m afraid. These are Audubon’s Shearwaters, also known as Dusky Petrels. They are the only permanent resident shearwater species on Abaco. Three others (Cory’s, Great and Sooty) are rare transients; and the last – the Manx – is a very rare off-course vagrant.

Each sad bird is part of a tragic and recurrent phenomenon, a so-called die-off event. As in previous years, a few of the birds that succumb may be Great Shearwaters mixed in with the Audubon’s. I first became aware of this problem in June 2015 and wrote two detailed posts about the situation. This bleak time lasted for about a week, and many reports came in from the mainland and the cays from Green Turtle Cay right down to Crossing Rocks, all duly mapped to get the overall picture. 

audubons-shearwater-abaco-keith-kemp

There was thankfully no such problem in 2016, but in 2017 – also in June – there was another die-back event involving a large number of Audubon’s shearwaters (Puffinus lherminieri) appearing in the tideline and on beaches. Many were already dead. Some are still alive, but in a very poor state. The prospects for recovery for birds that were captured and cared for were not good.

Audubon's shearwater - Kinlarak / wiki

Two years on, and the melancholy cycle is repeating itself. A few days ago, Melissa Maura, an expert in the care and recovery of creatures of all kinds, posted an alert and some sound advice:

A heads-up to all Island folk that it appears to be a summer when exhausted Shearwaters (pelagic seabirds) are washing up on our beaches in Eleuthera and Abaco. I have had two calls in 24 hours. Should you find one, understand that it will be in a severe state of exhaustion and stress and that excessive handling will kill it. Please put in a safe pen on a sandy surface, with shallow pan of fresh water and try locate either fresh fish (important) or squid from a bait shop. This may have to be administered by gently opening the beak and inserting one inch long piece of fish every couple of hours until stable. Ideally they need tube feeding, but very few folk can do this. Please contact me on private message if you find any…

An exhausted Audubon’s Shearwater, now being cared for by Melissa Maura

WHY DOES THIS SHEARWATER DIE-OFF HAPPEN?
This is a periodic phenomenon that looks to be settling into a 2-year cycle in the Northern Bahamas (Eleuthera is also affected). The cause is probably a combination of factors, very likely stemming from prevailing mid-summer climate conditions and/or the effect of climate change. This can lead to a shortage of food far out in the ocean where the birds spend their days. This in turn leads to weakness and exhaustion as the birds try to find food. The birds may then land (or fall) in the sea, to be washed ashore in a very bad state, or dead. In 2017, well-known bird expert Woody Bracey noted a correlation between poor fishing conditions out at sea, and an unusual absence of the frigatebirds that are a sure sign of a healthy fish population.
Shearwater washed up on the beach at Winding Bay a couple of days ago
ARE PLASTICS A CONTRIBUTORY FACTOR?
As we must all accept by now, most if not all these birds will unavoidably have ingested some of our discarded plastic.  However, that in itself would not explain the simultaneous deaths of many birds of one type in a specific area, at exactly the same time of year, and for a few days only. 
Audubon's Shearwater (Neotropical Birds / Cornell / Brian Sullivan)
WHAT ELSE CAN BE DONE?
The dead birds will be quickly removed by the turkey vultures. If you do find one, you might want to bury it. The prognosis for sick birds is not that good. They may have been carried a long way from open sea and they will be exhausted and starved. Those that are strong enough may recover naturally; but most will sadly die, being too weak and emaciated to survive. There is no available facility able to deal with a large number of very poorly or dying birds.
The most practical advice I can give is:
(1) move the bird gently into the shade if in the sun
(2) provide clean water in a shallow dish
(3) offer finely chopped fish BUT no bread (it’s very bad for birds)
(4) if this seems to be working, then carry on until the bird is strong enough to fly (this may be quite a commitment)
(5) do not reproach yourself if a bird you try to help dies. Many will be in such bad shape by the time they are washed up that they are unlikely to survive whatever steps you take
(6) remember that this a part – a sad part – of the life-cycle of these birds, and (as with other species), a degree attrition is an inevitable aspect of natural life
I’d be interested to hear any other accounts of this year’s dieback, especially of any recovery stories. By all means do this as a comment, or email me, DM, or FB.
Credits: thanks to those  on Abaco who have been reporting this event over the last few days; Dominic Sherony (1); Melissa Maura (2, 5); Keith Kemp (3); Kinlarak / wiki (4); Rhonda Pearce (6); Brian Sullivan / Neotropical Birds / Cornell  (7); )Richard Crossley / Crossley Guides for the composite picture

KIRTLAND’S WARBLERS: DESERVING PHILATLEY…


Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco, Bahamas (Woody Bracey)

KIRTLAND’S WARBLERS: DESERVING PHILATLEY…

As I have mentioned before, the BAHAMAS POSTAL SERVICE has an exceptionally good record for producing wonderful, colourful stamps showcasing the abundant wealth of natural history in the archipelago. Birds, reef fish, turtles, marine mammals, butterflies, plants and flowers – all these and more have featured on the stamps of the Bahamas for many years. There’s quite a collection of them on a display page of their own HERE.

Quite by chance I recently came across a significant philatelic tribute to one of the rarest Bahamas winter visitors, the Kirtland’s Warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii): a complete commemorative sheet of stamps. Reader I bought it (= ‘won’ it on eBay – $2.75!). Produced in conjunction with the WWF, it is a model of conservationist sensitivity.

The sheet of 16 stamps depicts 4 x 4 KIWA variations: a female at the nest; a singing male; a female feeding young; and a juvenile feeding in the Jack pines of its summer habitat, prior to its long Fall migration to Abaco and the Bahamas.

Kirtland’s Warbler in the Abaco National Park: you need to know where to look to find oneKirtland's Warbler, Abaco, Bahamas (Woody Bracey)

I am not a stamp collector, but I do appreciate it when countries take the trouble to showcase their flora and fauna among the notable people, sporting heroes, modes of transport and Harry Potter characters. As I say, the Bahamas is very good in this respect.

A Kirtland’s Warbler on Green Turtle Cay: the first recorded sighting on one of the CaysKirtland's Warbler, Elbow Cay Abaco Bahamas (Sally Chisholm)

You can find out more about these rare and vulnerable little warblers, including the first ever recorded on a Cay in Abaco, using these links:

KIRTLAND’S WARBLERS: ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW

KIWA ON GREEN TURTLE CAY: A FIRST FOR ABACO

In the breeding grounds in very limited areas of Michigan and Ohio, the KIWAs are carefully monitored. Vince Cavalieri is a bird expert in those parts, and his bird below was photographed in the heartland of their preferred summer habitat. Vince wrote the following caption:

In 1987 the Kirtland’s Warbler was a hair’s breadth from extinction. A century of fire suppression and encroachment into their habitat by the brown-headed cowbird had reduced its already small population to a tiny number of birds in just a few Michigan counties. A prescribed fire that got out of control may have saved them, creating enough habitat that it gave conservationists enough time to figure out how to save them (highly prescriptive habitat creation and cowbird control). Today their comeback has been so successful that they have been proposed for removal from the endangered species list. They still remain the stuff of birding legend. A tiny range mostly restricted to north central Michigan, a big beautiful warbler with a loud and cheerful song, easy to see and confiding once found. A bird worthy of long travel to check off your list.

Kirtland's Warbler, Michigan (Vince Cavalieri)

Here are a couple more ‘summer birds’ to admire

Kirtland's Warbler (kiwa-jeol-trick-fwsh-snowmanradio-wiki) Kirtland's Warbler (Andrew C, Ohio wiki)

Credits: Woody Bracey (1, 2); Sally Chisholm (3); Vince Cavalieri (4); Joel Trick FWSH (5); Andrew C (Wiki) (6);  Birdorable (cartoon); BPS and eBay (KIWA stamps)  

BUNTING(S) FOR AN ABACO CHRISTMAS: AN OLD TRADITION


Painted Bunting, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

painted-buntingimagesimagesimagespainted-bunting copy

 BUNTING(S) FOR AN ABACO CHRISTMAS: AN OLD TRADITION

painted-bunting copy

BUNTING  /ˈbʌntɪŋ/  (Noun)

[A Christmas gift of a puntastic avian / festive double-meaning]
  1. A small New World songbird of the cardinal subfamily
  2. Flags and other colourful festive decorations

painted-buntingimagesimagesimagespainted-bunting copy

PAINTED BUNTINGPainted Bunting, Abaco (Erik Gauger)

One of the Winterval traditions at Rolling Harbour HQ – that haven of unreliable natural science powered by lazy insouciance and characterised by a regrettably unserious approach – is to break the rule that (mostly) forbids reposting old material without good reason (which there occasionally is). This means marking the imminence of Christmas with bunting. And indeed buntings, those lovely birds beautifully painted by nature. Nothing says ‘Happy Christmas’ better than a flock of PABU!

painted-buntingimagesimagesimagespainted-bunting copyPainted Bunting, Abaco (Tara Lavallee)

painted-buntingimagesimagesimagespainted-bunting copy

Painted Bunting, Abaco (Tara Lavallee)

It’s hard to imagine a more Christmassy little bird than the Painted Bunting. Bright blue, red, green primary colours straight from a child’s paintbox make for a spectacular bird to grace the festive season. These are migratory winter residents, and the first reports of the bright and beautiful males on Abaco started to appear in late October. Some will stay around until March.

                                                           painted-buntingimagespainted-bunting copy

A female & a male PABU feeding together, and a male with a pair of black-faced grassquitsPainted Buntings (M & F), Delphi, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)Painted Bunting, Delphi, Abaco (Sandy Walker)

                                                        painted-buntingimagespainted-bunting copy

The two wonderful photos below are by Tom Sheley, a major photographic contributor to THE BIRDS OF ABACO. They were actually taken in Texas, but I include them because of Tom’s strong connection with the birdlife of Abaco; and also because they are fantastic shots…
Painted Bunting reflection, Laguna Seca.South TX Tom SheleyPainted Bunting dip reflection LR.Laguna Seca.South TX. 4.16.13.Tom Sheley

painted-bunting copy

This is my opportunity to wish a very Happy Christmas or [insert preferred seasonal appellation] to everyone who visits Rolling Harbour and especially those who, having done so, return for more! There could of course be anything from 600,000+ individuals who called in once, were put-off and never came back… to one sadly crazed person who has been pressing the ‘read’ button 600,000+ times over the last few years. If the former, thanks for trying, sorry to disappoint. If the latter, keep up the good work, buddy.

Credits: Tom Sheley (1, 7, 8), Erik Gauger (2), Tara Lavallee (3, 4), Keith Salvesen (5); Sandy Walker (6); Birdorable Cartoons

painted-buntingimagesimagesimagespainted-bunting copy

Painted Bunting.Bahama Palm Shores.Abaco Bahamas.Tom Sheley

SANDHILL CRANE: ANOTHER NEW BIRD FOR ABACO, BAHAMAS


Sandhill Crane, Abaco Bahamas - a first-ever sighting (Elwood Bracey)

SANDHILL CRANE: ANOTHER NEW BIRD FOR ABACO, BAHAMAS

Still they keep arriving, the new birds that have never before graced the shores of Abaco Recently it was a Canada warbler, at the lower end of the size scale. The elegant sandhill crane (Antigone canadensis) is the 10th new species for Abaco since the publication of The Birds of Abaco in March 2014. If you are wondering why the bird is not called Grus canadensis any longer, it’s because the genus of the bird was reclassified by the ABA in 2016. Out with dreary old Grus and in with exciting Oedipus’s daughter (or was she his half-sister? They… erm… had the same mother… Discuss, using both sides of the exam paper) in Greek mythology…

As the crane’s canadensis suggests and as range map shows, these are birds of North America, breeding mainly in Canada. In winter they head south to the warmth, reaching Florida as winter migrants. As you can see, the northern part of Florida and also Cuba have small year-round breeding populations. Zero zilch zip nada in the Bahamas.

THE ABACO SIGHTINGS, DECEMBER 2018

Sandhill Crane, Abaco Bahamas - a first-ever sighting (Kaderin Mills)

At 9.00 am on December 13, the bird above was photographed by Kaderin Mills (of the Bahamas National Trust) on Little Abaco, at the Fox Town Primary School, Crown Haven. The day before, the 12th, the school Principal Mrs Curry had seen the bird in the school grounds feeding on the grass. A couple of phone ‘sighting shots’ were taken before it flew off. Next day it returned, word spread and Kadie Mills recorded the bird officially and put it on eBird to give the newcomer some due publicity. By the early afternoon, Woody Bracey had been told about the bird, and went to take photos. He saw it in the same place the next day too.

Sandhill Crane, Abaco Bahamas - a first-ever sighting (Elwood Bracey)

OK, FIRST FOR ABACO – AND THE BAHAMAS TOO?

The strict answer is, no. Many years ago, there was a single report of a Sandhill Crane on Andros. It’s not known if the sighting was officially confirmed, but according to expert Bruce Hallett there was a photograph, and the late Tony White, then ‘recorder’ for the Bahamas, saw it. There are no available records, but Tony’s authority on issues around Bahamas birds was (and remains) absolute.

Sandhill Crane, Abaco Bahamas - a first-ever sighting (Elwood Bracey)

12 CAREFULLY SELECTED SANDHILL CRANE FACTS

  • These cranes are social birds, usually living in pairs or in family groups 
  • Their calls are loud and far-reaching, like a huge crows with a sore throat (below) 
  • Mated pairs engage in ‘unison calling’, standing close and duetting amorously
  • Hatchlings are fully-formed and can leave the nest within a day.
  • Juveniles are known as colts (whichever their gender, it seems)
  • They have an impressive wingspan as adults, from about 5′ to 7′ 6″
  • They are able to soar in flight, using thermals to obtain lift and stay aloft for hours
  • Flocks of cranes may be huge – sometimes estimated at over 10,000 individuals
  • Their ancestors are among the oldest fossils of any bird species, at around 2.5 M  years
  • Vagrants have been found as far off piste as Britain (1981, 1991 only), China and Japan
  • Many predators call them dinner; but they can kick and stab with their bills in defence
  • The sandhills of Cuba form the smallest breeding population, around 300   

(Ian Cruickshank / Xeno Canto)

On the map: Abaco’s first ever sandhill crane

Adult with its cutely ungainly, yellow-legged coltSnadhill Crane (birdphotos.com)

Credits: firstly, to School Principal Mrs Curry for a truly excellent spot; Kaderin Mills (2) – the 1st usable image; Elwood ‘Woody’ Bracey (1, 3, 4, 6); http://www.birdphotos.com / wiki (5); Cornell (range map); Ian Cruickshank / Xeno Canto (audio); Birdorable (cartoon)

Sandhill Crane, Abaco Bahamas - a first-ever sighting (Elwood Bracey)

KIRTLAND’S WARBLERS ON ABACO: A FIRST FOR THE CAYS


Kirtland's Warble, Green Turtle Cay, Abaco Bahamas (Sally Chisholm)

KIRTLAND’S WARBLERS ON ABACO: A FIRST FOR THE CAYS

I last wrote in April about the rare Kirtland’s warbler Setophaga kirtlandii that, in very small isolated numbers, overwinters on Abaco. You can get to the article HERE. You’ll find plenty of information, a range map, notes about the eponymous Mr Kirtland, and lots of good photos (none mine except the joke one – I messed up my one chance out of 4 birds encountered in the National Park). So I won’t go over the ground again…

I’m returning to this near-threatened species now because there has been a very exciting development for Abaco for the KIWA. Towards the end of last month, 2 birds were found over a couple of days at a location on Green Turtle Cay. Having now checked all reported sightings for Abaco since time immemorial (or at least from when eBird began), I believe that this may be the first time a Kirtland’s warbler has been reported on any of the cays. Certainly when we were researching The Birds of Abaco, we found no evidence of KIWA reports from the cays. Sightings are anyway few and far between (not even annual), and mostly on a ‘right place right time a hunch and a large slice of luck’ basis.

Kirtland's Warble, Green Turtle Cay, Abaco Bahamas (Sally Chisholm)

The first sighting of the season, on Ocotober 27,  was (surprisingly) at Sandy Point, when Woody Bracey took a party of 3 birding for the day. Most KIWA sightings are in south Abaco, with selected areas of the huge National Forest being much the most likely places. There were in fact 2 birds seen – here’s a photograph of one of them. Sandy Point was an unexpected location, but they were on the mainland and in the south – a great ‘get’ by any standards, but not unique for the area.

Kirtland's Warble, Sandy Point Abaco Bahamas (Roger Neilson)

AN EXCITING SIGHTING

On November 22 at 08.30, Sally Chisholm was birdwatching on GTC when she suddenly came across an unmistakeable KIWA, seeing it closely and clearly: “gray back with dark striping, gray head with white broken eye ring, pale yellow breast with small dark spots”. It was pumping its tail (‘tail-wagging’ J. Bond) characteristically, and eating the berries from a palm tree (see header image). Sally heard its repeated “chip” call, typical of the KIWA. Furthermore, a second bird was returning the call, though she could not see it.

KIWA CHIP CALL Paul Driver / Xeno Canto

Kirtland's Warble, Green Turtle Cay, Abaco Bahamas (Sally Chisholm)

Two days later, in the early morning on November 24, Sally returned to the same location and saw a single bird, clearly one (or perhaps the other) of the two birds already seen / heard. She got a fine clear shot this time, too. 

Kirtland's Warble, Green Turtle Cay, Abaco Bahamas (Sally Chisholm)

I’m not by any stretch of the imagination a Kirtland’s expert (not even a bird expert, if I’m honest). The photos seem to me to show a young bird (compared with ones I have seen) and I wonder if they are juvenile adults (as it were) on their first migration from the jack pines of Michigan. Comments on this remark invited and welcomed… No matter: the great thing is that, whatever the age of the bird, photo #1 is, as far as I can tell, the first visual confirmation of a KIWA sighting on an Abaco cay. It’s a privilege to be able to give it a wider audience.

WHAT ARE THE MAIN THREATS TO THE SPECIES?

  • Mankind is the primary threat. The breeding areas are particularly vulnerable from deforestation and clearance of the jack pines that are essential for successful nesting and breeding – and therefore the survival of the species
  • Encroachment of development is another threat, as with so many species
  • There is a further threat of nest parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds, to which KIWAs are especially vulnerable
  • In the winter grounds where the habitat is mostly remote or in protected areas, there is rather less of a problem from these factors – for now at least
  • Overall, habitat degradation at one end of the migration – in particular the breeding grounds – poses a serious risk; at both ends, extinction could loom again. Check out the very limited range of the KIWA and you’ll see the point at once

Credits: Sally Chisholm (1, 2, 4, 5) with special thanks for use permission for her terrific photos; Rodger Neilson (3); Paul Driver / Xeno Canto, sound file; Birdorable, cartoon; Usual (range map); BPS (stamp)

ABACO BALD EAGLE(S): AN EYRIE COINCIDENCE (GEDDIT?)


Bald Eagle Juvenile (Audubon)

ABACO BALD EAGLE(S): AN EYRIE COINCIDENCE (GEDDIT?)

I absolutely knew this would happen. In a sense, I rather wanted it to happen. And now it has, and I have got my comeuppance. Bigly. Hugely. No sooner had I pressed ‘send‘ on my post 2 days ago bemoaning the absence of bald eagles in 2018 than corrections began to come in.

  • Harsh Judgemental Reader: “Do you mean you were wrong?”
    • Contrite Writer: “Yes.”
  • HJR: “Did you check eBird before you fired off your intemperate post?”
    • CW (in a small apologetic voice): “No.”
  • HJR: Well then, what have you got to say for yourself?”
    • CW (*hangs head*): I’m very sorry, everyone. I’ll try to do better this time. Here goes:”

THE ABACO BALD EAGLE(S) OF 2018: IN NO WAY AWOL!

SIGHTING ONE

On October 25th legendary Bahamas birder Elwood Bracey and a party of 4 were looking out over the Marls from Sunset Ridge when they saw 4 birds flying high. Two were unmistakably turkey vultures; one was a magnificent frigatebird (ie totally non-eagle-ish); and the fourth was much larger, looking like a juvenile bald eagle. Any remaining doubts were dispelled when it dropped into a steep dive and smashed into the water, catching a fish in its talons, much like an osprey. There’s no room for confusion here: Woody has vast experience on Abaco and beyond – and besides, he had a powerful spotting scope and 4 birding witnesses. The ID is, as they say, solid. And it was posted on eBird. Which I should have checked. But didn’t. As Julia Roberts (qua Vivian Ward) actually did say, “Big Mistake. Huge!

Bald Eagle Juvenile (Wiki)

The problem here – you are ahead of me, aren’t you – is that a juvenile bald eagle does not resemble an adult. Rather than the familiar and symbolic look, they are dark brown with white flecks and mottling that changes as they grow older. A juvenile won’t even begin to look like a bald-headed adult until it is around 4 years old. Here are two comparisons of the confusing ages and stages.

SIGHTING 2

Within the last couple of weeks, a resident of Man-o-War Cay saw a huge brown bird – not an osprey, turkey vulture or red-tailed hawk – hunting chickens in the area. He told his family and identified the bird from looking at a photo of a juvenile bald eagle. I received this report – the first in time – from Charmaine Albury. Her brother was the sharp-eyed spotter. Had that been the only report, in the absence of a photo I might have had at least some doubt. Then Woody’s report arrived, a definite juvenile bald eagle only 3 weeks before, over the Marls. From there, with its spectacular eyesight it could practically have seen the individual chickens on Man-o-War. So it’s a good fit for ID.

WHAT’S THE CONCLUSION?

I’d say that right now on Abaco we have a single juvenile bald eagle. It’s a vagrant, away from its usual hunting ground but unchallenged in the skies where it has ended up. There has been the usual autumn extreme weather (though Abaco has dodged the worst of it) to throw a young bird of course in the last couple of months. So, rather late in the day, we really do have an Abaco Bald Eagle for 2018.

A juvenile bald eagle – not at all like its parents to look at

Credits: Woody and Char for the sighting reports; header image (1), Audubon; (2) wiki; (3) Allaboutbirds.com; comparative drawing, Birdwatchers’ Digest; (4) FB, source unknown (and a credit or take-down as you wish if it’s yours); cute cartoon, the most excellent Birdorable

RUFF & READY: YET ANOTHER BIRD FIRST FOR ABACO


Ruff, Grand Bahama, Bahamas (2015) Duncan Mullis

THE FIRST RUFF IN THE BAHAMAS

RUFF & READY: YET ANOTHER BIRD FIRST FOR ABACO

The list of new bird species recorded for the Bahamas in general and Abaco in particular continues to grow longer. At the end of August it was a CANADA WARBLER (now also recently seen on Grand Bahama and possibly New Providence). Now, a mere 4 weeks later, it’s a Ruff (Calidris pugnax), a mid-sized Eurasian shorebird that, it seems, has a tendency to ‘vagrate’ across the Atlantic from time to time.

Ruffs: the normal range

Ruff, (N. America) Dick Daniels

You have to take new birds as you find them, of course. First, you may not have a camera with you to record the sighting for posterity. Secondly, the bird may not be perched prettily on a twig or a small rock. In this instance the legendary Woody Bracey found his Ruff in the prosaic and arguably unattractive setting of the Treasure Cay dump. He didn’t have a camera, and when he next went back with a camera to check for the bird the ruff had gone…

Ruff (m, non-breeding) J.M.Garg

Woody’s bird, a female (known as a Reeve), was standing next to a Lesser Yellowlegs. They are much the same height, but there the similarity ends – Ruffs are unmistakably plumper and with a shorter bill. Woody has good reason to recognise these rare and occasional transatlantic visitors, having often seen Ruffs both during his time living in the UK, and also in Africa. I’ve seen the appearance described as “like a gravy-boat”, which is well up there with the least useful descriptions of a bird’s appearance I have come across. Looked at another way, we have a couple of gravy boats that have an occasional outing. Neither looks remotely like a ruff.

Ruff (Old Print) nederlandsche_vogelen wiki

IS THE ABACO RUFF A NEW SPECIES FOR THE WHOLE BAHAMAS?

Very nearly… but not quite. Only two previous Ruff sightings are recorded, in 2015 and 2018, and both in the same area on Grand Bahama, towards West End. And the only photo is from birder Duncan Mullis, who in 2015 took the first and maybe only one of a Reeve with a bunch of much smaller sanderlings (see also header image close-up).

The first ruff in the BahamasRuff - Grand Bahama, Bahamas (Duncan Mullis 2015)

WHAT SHOULD WE KNOW ABOUT RUFFS?

In the breeding season in particular, male ruffs are very different from the smaller reeves. They acquire a spectacular colourful plumage that includes a sort of ornamental collar (hence the name). They enhance their courtship rituals with elaborate displays designed to impress the reeves. These occur in chosen areas known as leks, places where strutting, preening and general competitive showing off occur to attract a mate. Such arenas are also created by a few other bird species – grouse, blackcock and peafowl, for example. The ruff’s lekking behaviour has some complex variations – including same-sex ‘copulation’ and polyandry – but sadly this isn’t the place to explore them in detail.

WHAT DOES A LEK LOOK LIKE?

Here are two males with very different breeding plumages, giving it their all at the lek… When Carl Linnaeus described the ruff in his Systema Naturae, he gave it the binomial name Tringa pugnax, the latter word meaning  ‘aggressive’ – the lek can also become a combat zone between competing males.

Ruff Lek (Arjan Haverkamp) wiki

This male has decided to vogue it and ‘strike the pose’ as it preensRuff - male preening (B.S.Thurner-hof, wiki)

Writing in The Spruce, a new multi-interest resource I discovered in researching this article, Melissa Mayntz describes succinctly some of the common behaviour seen at leks. This includes some (or all) of the following (baby-boomers and dad-dancers may recognise some of these moves):

  • Bowing, dipping, or bending
  • Head bobbing or quick turns and nods
  • Strutting, stomping, kicks, or similar footwork
  • Exaggerated wing postures, such as fluttering, drooping, or spreading wings
  • Tails fanned, flared, cocked, or spread
  • Chests puffed out, often to reveal air sacs or distinct plumage
  • Calling, songs, drumming, or booming sounds
  • Dance-like sequences with multiple movements, possibly coordinated between partners after a female shows an interest in a specific mate

To which I’d add aggressive male territorial rivalry within the lek, leading to physical attacks with beak, claws and wings. Meanwhile the females watch from the edge to assess their chosen mates. The illustration below shows this rather charmingly.

Illustration of a lek by Johann Friedrich Naumann (1780–1857)Ruff Lek - Johannes Naumann

There’s a lot to be described about how ruff’s moult, but it’s not especially interesting for anyone but a moult specialist, so instead you can have a reminder of Ogden Nash’s last word on the topic: ‘The song of canaries / Never varies / And when they are moulting / They are pretty revolting…’ And we’ll leave migration as well, since basically that factor is N/A for our particular part of the world.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
JUST OUT OF CURIOSITY, CAN YOU EAT RUFFS / REEVES?
In former times ruffs were considered a delicacy and were eaten in large numbers. Often they would be fattened in pens in preparation for the table. I’ll finish with an old description: 
…if expedition is required, sugar is added, which will make them in a fortnight’s time a lump of fat: they then sell for two shillings or half-a-crown a piece… The method of killing them is by cutting off their head with a pair of ‘scissars’, the quantity of blood that issues is very great, considering the size of the bird. They are dressed like the Woodcock, with their intestines; and, when killed at the critical time, say the Epicures, are reckoned the most delicious of all morsels. Not a 21st century culinary trend I hope…

Ruffs in India (J. M. Garg)

Credits: Woody Bracey (sighting smarts); Duncan Mullis (1, 5); Dick Daniels (2); J.M.Garg (3, 9); Open Source / Wiki, prints (4, 8);  Arjan Haverkamp (6); B.S.Thurner-hof (7); Melissa Mayntz / The Spruce re Leks; debt to Wiki (and other O/S) for source material, photos, range map etc