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Identifying Birds: Ruff Going Sometimes

Updated on May 6, 2018
Sherry Thornburg profile image

Writer, photographer and birding enthusiast, Sherry Thornburg writes about birding and birding related topics.

Identifying Birds

Last winter, the birds were thick along the San Jacinto river shore near my home, so I used the abundance of winter birds to work on my bird identification skills. I was just starting out at identifying birds and it was a rough effort in self-education. I know quite a few songbirds, I can identify the more common water birds in my area, but that only touched the surface of the birds available.

For the purpose, I was heading out between 7 and 9 a.m. while the birds were still on the dock. These were mostly waterbirds with a scattering of others here and there close by. I spent a few minutes just taking pictures of birds in groups on the dock and then walked around to see who else I could find. Using a camera helped the process as birds don’t generally sit still long enough for you to thumb through books. That part I did at home with my still shots of birds on the computer screen.

The process lasted from November to March when the birds left the area. In that time, I learned about the life cycle of seagulls. Gulls take 3 years to get their adult feathers and their winter wear is different from spring wear. There are a lot of birds that have different feather coloring in the winter. I was also learning the differences between terns, enjoying pelicans, egrets, herons, and sandpipers along with wintering warblers. Texas is a great place for winter birding. Many birds that nest far north of our state will spend the winter here.

Strange New Bird

Unknown bird found on a rainy morning in Kingwood, Texas.
Unknown bird found on a rainy morning in Kingwood, Texas. | Source

A Different Kind of Bird

One morning the weather was misty, but I really wanted to get out and see the birds. I pulled out my raincoat and a camera cover with my husband making derogatory remarks about crazy bird people as I left.

The birds were right where I expected them to be, a bit damp. I documented the flock on the dock and then wondered around. The weather turned against me as I went. Rain came down harder, forcing me to hide the camera in my coat. I could just hear my husband at home saying, "I told you so."

As I followed the retainer wall toward the road, I caught sight of a bird sitting on the wall. I started taking pictures and realized this wasn’t one of my regulars. It looked like a waterbird, but it had long feathers around its neck. They were blowing around in the wind. The bird shook off the rain and combed his feathers with his bill. It didn’t seem to like having those long feathers wet. I had never seen a bird with long feathers like this before, so as long as it was willing to sit there and pose, I snapped my shutter. When it finally flew away, I hurried home to see what it could be.

A Bird with a Boa

Unusual long feathers around the neck.
Unusual long feathers around the neck. | Source

IDing Strange Birds

The first thing you do when you see a strange bird is classify it. Was it a waterbird or a perching bird? The correct terminology would be choosing an order and then a family. Most of the better books are organized from oldest evolutionary types to the more recently evolved. On this scale, ducks and geese come first followed by other water birds, then game birds, raptors, shore birds and then a long list of perching birds.

I have three bird guides I use to compare my pictures to. Each one has special features that make it unique as a reference.

  • The National Wildlife Federation’s Field Guide to Birds of North America. It has the best photographic pictures to compare to and good helps section for each bird grouping and family.
  • The Golden Field Guide’s Birds of North America. This book has like birds grouped on the same page for easy comparisons.
  • Birds of Texas by Keith Arnold and Gregory Kennedy. This is specific to my state. It has more detailed write-ups and the illustrations stress the major field marks to look for.

This bird was a shore bird, something in the sandpiper group. Warning, for a newbie, sandpipers and their kin look a lot alike; but I had an unusual looking bird with long neck feathers. The only bird in the book that had that kind of identifying mark was a Ruff.

What is a Ruff?

A Ruff is a Eurasian shorebird that wanders into North America fairly regularly and can be found pretty much anywhere in the east and central flyways but only on odd visits. They don’t really belong here, but seem to visit pretty often. No, my bird doesn’t really look like a full grown male ruff (seen in the video below), but I was thinking that maybe it was an immature bird? Ok, I was stumped; but I knew I had something odd.

Ruffs Displaying – by Groenelantaarn

Checking with Friends

I then posted one of the pictures with a Facebook birding group I belong to. The Great Backyard Birding Count group was created for a birding count event, but continued as a friendly place to share your birding experiences and learn about birds. To say the least it caused a stir. Some had no idea what it was, others said it was a spotted sandpiper and dismissed the long neck feathers entirely. Doing that didn’t make sense to me at all. It was time to find someone else to show it to.

Getting Professional Help

I had learned that there are places on the internet to submit bird sightings. These are scientific data collections that help bird scientists know where the birds are and try to get a handle on population sizes and migratory information. One is E-bird. I went through their process and listed the bird I saw as a Ruff. Within a week, I received an email asking for more information to verify the sighting. (You know I was waiting for that.) I sent them several of my pictures and their volunteers were a bit perplexed too. I was encouraged to send the pictures of Cornell Labs, a birding science organization, to confirm it.

I sent an email query through their website and received an email quickly telling me to send the pictures. The first email back was from a public information specialist and he agreed that it was a Ruff. He congratulated me on the find and told me to tell E-birds of his ID.

I was so happy. As a new birder, I found something cool you don’t see all the time.

Confusion Among Professionals

Two days later, I received this.

Hi Sherry,

I had another look and decided to get a second opinion—which I probably should have done before responding to you. —there is now some debate, and I hope that you haven’t yet entered the sighting in eBird—if you have and it turns out to be incorrect, I am very sorry. Hopefully we will get a consensus shortly.


Huh? My sighting was causing professional debate? Really?

A few days later I was sent their consensus. Marc sent me the conversation thread between him and another person.

Ok Sherry—we have a winner (and a loser—me!) This is a Spotted Sandpiper with an unusual feather anomaly (usually seen in domestic birds!) It fooled more than just me!! Sorry for the misinformation.

I think a major consideration was simply that the bird did not have the right proportions—Ruffs are longer legged and generally longer necked in appearance. It also lacked certain key features, such as an area of white around the base of the bill. I have certainly never seen anything like that before.


Birding Requires Careful Observation


Cleaning up a Bad ID

It is really bad form to miss ID a bird entry into official records like that; but it turned out that I really did have something unusual. I quickly sent off corrections where needed. In the end, I titled my pictures “the Sandpiper with a Boa.”

The final take is that identifying birds is tricky. You have to be careful and study your field guides to make sure you have checked all the major field marks. It is also always good to get second and sometimes third opinions. When your birding friends can’t help you, like when you find a sandpiper wearing a boa, it is best to go find a professional opinion; and even then, two heads are better than one. Even though my birding friends, who insisted on discounting the long feathers, were right; explaining those abnormalities is necessary if you want to make a good ID.

The Rest of the Story: A Real Ruff Steps Forward

That same year in May, the Texas Birding News thread on the American Birding Association’s Birding News tab was all a flutter with word of a female Ruff being seen at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. I didn’t know about this site yet, but now that I do I plan to check it out regularly. This was just one month after I visited to see the new migrants coming in. Darn the bad luck. I could have had a real Ruff picture to go with my Sandpiper. Below is a video of the visiting Ruff.

A Real Ruff Bird in Town – By Chlick3n115

Have You Ever Had Such a Bird?

Birds with strange features and identification difficulties come to all of us. Please share your toughest birding challenge in the comments.

Sharing is learning.

© 2015 Sherry Thornburg


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    • Sherry Thornburg profile imageAUTHOR

      Sherry Thornburg 

      4 years ago from Kern County California

      Thank you so much Johan Smulders. I appreciate your encouragement.

    • Johan Smulders profile image

      Johan Smulders 

      4 years ago from East London, South Africa

      Welcome to the challenging world of birding - your passion and interest will take you far. I present a course in East London, South Africa called "ID for beginner birders" and I found your article great. Keep it up!


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