Thursday, 20 August 2015

Ruff justice- another country 'first'!

I have been lucky in that on two previous voyages a few years ago I saw a common swift off the coast of Suriname that once 'accepted' proved to be the first documented record for Suriname and South America. A year later I got my 'first for Bulgaria' in the form of a Black- throated accentor' - that too being accepted by the relevant National rarities committee. Strike three for the bespectacled, pelagic birding geek yesterday,  in the form of a very nice ruff that flew over the sea from the north, settled briefly on the waves as if it thought it was a phalarope and then flew south for the coast of Suriname! ...........

Week four of a five week survey and for want of a better word the sea birding has been rubbish. Maybe I'm being a tad harsh but many days have gone by without a single bird being seen, and indeed I have even had spells of two and three days without a single feather to gaze upon. Of course spending many hours wave -watching eventually turns up something and I have been fortunate to see plenty of cetaceans, complimented by two red-billed tropicbirds, a few Audubons' shearwaters, a single great shearwater, a few pomarine skuas and a handful of boobies- masked, brown and red-footed. A few birds have settled on deck for a rest during their southerly migrations including a cattle egret and a least sandpiper- but its been slow......oh so mind numbingly slow. At least until yesterday. As I glanced over the starboard rail I picked up what was obviously a wader flying 15 metres or so above the waves and alongside the ship at a distance of maybe 120 metres. It was largely in silhouette in the intense tropical sunlight and I knew I couldn't ID it on that view. Suddenly the bird banked hard left and dropped towards the sea surface and flew towards the ship. The flight was rather languid for a wader and certainly not the ultra fast, mechanical beats associated with so many of the small sandpipers I am familiar with. Head- on, I could see a very nice 'rusty' crown and with improving views, a hint of a pale eyestripe and significantly projecting toes. Then the white sides to the rump were apparent, the weak white bar across the secondaries was a clue, as were the plain, buffy tones to the face and neck and as the bird dropped down to settle on the sea, a pale underwing and dark, medium length bill with a very slight down- curve near the tip. Hmmm- interesting in a vaguely familiar sort of way. Anyway, having grabbed a few record shots (no mean feat from a 15 metre high vessel rolling almost 10 degrees port and starboard at seven second intervals!) I studied the bird through my binoculars and tried to turn it into a rare wader that I had never before encountered, but after a few seconds the bird flew rapidly south. I checked my photos and checked through the key ID points and arrived at a probable juvenile ruff- hmmpf- a nice bird and no big deal, but something niggled away in my head for the rest of my sea watch time. Later I had a look at the Suriname bird species checklist that stood at a respectable 749. Ruff was not on it- yikes! I rechecked the list, rechecked my photos, enlarged them on the computer, rechecked the list again, went through the ID features again then got worried that I was making a silly ID mistake- after all birds look so different on the sea with no sense of scale and the light was bleaching the bird and I was tired, blah blah blah.  At that point I realised that if I was going to claim a country first I wanted a good second opinion on the birds ID. I sent the best photos to my good birding friend Bob McMillan on the Isle of Skye and just said 'can you assist with the ID of this bird' - no prompting or clues, other than that if I had seen this bird in western Europe at this time of year I would not have doubts as to its ID but as it was off the coast of Suriname it could be an important record. Bob quickly got back to me confirming that it was certainly a Ruff. I then sent the photos to a Dutch birding friend based in Paramaribo- Arie Spaans - who is compiling the latest guide to the birds of Suriname and after circulating the photos to other birders in Suriname he was delighted to inform me that yes it was a ruff and that the Suriname bird list now stood at 750 species! Happy days as they say. 


  1. Congratulations on your third "First" Andy!

    Your account and the photos of the bird pretending it was a petrel and then a phalarope are terrific.

    I also very much like your pix in the next post of the Semi-P - highly instructive - and I hope one day useful in Hong Kong where there has never been a record.


    1. Hi Mike- many thanks for your feedback and kind words. I'm just fortunate to be in a position that sometimes allows me to witness migration at sea- I'm always amazed at what turns up! Just wish I could get a first for Britain! Good luck with getting a semi p in HK!