Appearance of ruff on Kenai flats gives birders a thrill

Posted: Thursday, July 10, 2003

There's a stranger among us.

Do not be alarmed, though. This rare, Eurasian visitor poses no threat to national security.

The stranger is a type of shorebird known as a ruff, or Philomachus pugnax to be exact, and resident birders have been flocking to the flats area of the Kenai City Dock off Bridge Access Road to get a glimpse of this infrequently observed species.

"It's a neat experience," said David Wartinbee, a biology professor at Kenai Peninsula College and an avid birder. "I didn't even know what it was at first. I had to go and look it up because I had never seen one before. I had never even heard of it."

It's no surprise that Wartinbee wasn't familiar with the species, since it's close to unheard of on the Kenai Peninsula.

The Stokes Field Guide to Birds lists the ruff as a "rare migrant" along the coasts of continental North America, and casual through the rest of the contiguous 48 states.

Ruffs have been sighted in Alaska, according to the Sibley Guide To Birds, but the sightings are generally few and far between.

"People have been coming up from Homer and down from Anchorage to see it," said Ken Marlow of Marlow's on the Kenai, an ecotourism business specializing in bird viewing. "There's only been one other sighting here (on the peninsula) that I'm aware of in the last 10 years."

Connie Tarbox and her husband, Ken, a retired Fish and Game biologist, have been lucky enough to see the bird on more than one occasion in the past few weeks.

"I didn't know what it was when I first saw it two weeks ago," she said.

That's roughly the time that it showed up. It's unclear who was the first person in the area to spot the bird, but word traveled fast.

The ruff still had its ornate mating plumage then, but has since converted to its nonbreeding appearance.

"I just knew it was something different and weird looking, but my husband knew right away it was a ruff," Tarbox said.

The ruff wasn't the first one he had seen in Alaska.

"We heard about one last year up in Potter's Marsh in Anchorage, so we made the drive up and saw it," said Ken Tarbox. He posted the ruff sighting on the Web site

Not everyone has been as fortunate as the Tarboxes, and this year's ruff sighting is a first for many lifelong birders. Maria Allison of Kenai equates the sighting of a new bird to that of seeing a comet.

"It was a thrill to see such a unique and rare species," said Allison. "To live in a place like this and be able to add a new bird to your life list it's really cool."

Life lists are lists of birds that bird watchers make and hope to see in their lifetime, often traveling great distances and at even greater expense to notch another off the usually rare rosters.

She said some of her friends haven't been so lucky. At least a few people she knows have come to see it, only to have it fly off moments before their arrival, vanishing into the tall grass of the flats.

"When they fly off and disappear, you never know if they just went a little bit into the bush, or if they've flown away to some other state," Allison said.

The ruff appears relatively healthy, has been feeding well and is capable of full flight, but it does appear to have an injury to one of its legs. It's unclear the extent of the injury, or if it is recent or a past injury that never completely healed.

However, the bird's unusual limp, although unfortunate, may help with its identification for those unfamiliar with the species.

Rough facts on ruffs

Although the plumage and size can be extremely variable, ruffs are a distinctive bird, especially compared against other more common shore birds such as yellowlegs, dowitchers and godwits.

It is a large bird 9 to 11 inches tall with a small head, long neck, large plump body and a relatively short bill that is often orange.

In summer, males vary from white to rust colored to black, and always have distinctive erectile ear tufts and a mane of neck feathers. The breeding plumage of March through June looks quite unlike anything most birders would be familiar with.

The females are dark with a light belly and have black blotches on the breast and flanks.

Ruffs are a Eurasian species that typically summers in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, and winters in Ukraine, Turkey, Spain, France, Italy and in low numbers in a few other select locations in Europe.

They often are found on grasslands, fresh or salt water pools or mud flats.

Ruffs feed primarily on aquatic insects, mollusks and crustaceans.

Some information adapted from the Stokes Field Guide to Birds.

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