web analytics
big year Birding Costa Rica

Twitching the Ruff

That title would be a good one for new rap song or a dance practiced by the youth but those in the birding know understand what it really means. If you are new to birding or ended up at this site because you thought “Twitching the Ruff” was a a new dance, these definitions should provide illumination:

Twitching– The act of going to see a bird (usually rare and/or unusual) that often involves some sort of extra bit of travel and effort. The “twitch” probably stems from the nervous actions or attitudes expressed and felt by birders suddenly presented with an opportunity to see a very rare bird species near enough to home. For example, a birder in New York can’t travel to Costa Rica to twitch a Large-footed Finch. That would actually be traveling to look for a bird where it normally occurs. But, if a New Yorker heard about a Corn Crake in Queens in the evening and then called in sick the following morning to rush to where it was and anxiously see it, that there would be a classic twitch.

After a successful “twitch”, a birder might exclaim, “I twitched the Corn Crake!” If the crake was caught and killed by a domestic cat, instead, you might hear, “I tried to twitch the crake but dipped on account of a cat”. In the real world, either situation would likely include language too foul for this site, one in jubilation, the other in rancid fury.

Ruff- A small wading bird that nests in northern Eurasia and mostly migrates to sub-Saharan Africa for the winter. It is likely named for the resemblance of the male’s extravagant puffy neck plumage on breeding grounds to the similarly extravagant collar seen as high fashion during the Middle Ages.

A winter plumaged Ruff from Israel.

The most important thing to know about twitching is that just because you try and twitch a bird does NOT mean that you will see it. Since birds are mobile and nature is a savage affair for survival, the sooner you twitch, the more likely you will admire that special bird through binoculars. This is why birders get anxious, why they race to the site, why they keep up on sightings before making the trip. They have seen hawks catch a squirrel or dove or sparrow, have witnessed what quickly happens to the weak and vulnerable, especially migrants far from familiar habitats and haunts.

This is why Mary and I went on a Ruff twitch this past weekend. The bird, yes, a Ruff supposedly straight from northern Asia (!) was found in Costa Rica during the previous week and better yet, it was seen every day for a few days after the initial sighting. The habitat was the same so the chances looked good for it to still be there, other cool birds were also present, and damn was I anxious to go!

Oh and Ruff is also a mega for Costa Rica. There are only a few documented sightings so it was now or never for our country (and lifer for Mary) Ruff! But, to get there, we couldn’t take the direct route. No, we were in for a circuitous twitch but it was the only nice way to make it happen. This first involved driving in the opposite direction of the Ruff to drop Mary’s daughter at her grandmother’s place (something that worked out well in the overall scheme of things). After that, we were off to the north and then west, crossing the continental divide at Volcan Tenorio near Bijagua. Although I had hoped for some side twitching of rare birds on that route, the weather was not in our favor.

We then made our way to the town of Canas in late afternoon rains, spending the night at the Cabinas Arena y Mar (recommended as a cheap, easy place to stay, it is located just around the corner from Cabinas Liwi)). This was so we could get to the Ruff site with more than enough time to connect with our target bird before driving back past Bijagua and on to San Carlos.

Early Sunday morning, we made our way to the site, a series of flooded rice fields along country roads far from everything. Despite being led astray on multiple occasions by Google Maps, we did find the place and started scanning the birds straight away. We were the first birders to arrive but far from the last. Where was it? The lost shorebird wasn’t at the first place we checked so we started watching from another spot when some friends appeared and told us where it had been seen on the previous day. Figuring that people looking in more than one place would find the bird more quickly, they donned rubber boots and ventured into the muddy fields while we picked another spot to watch.

The habitat was great and there were good numbers of Blue-winged Teals and more yellowlegs than I had ever seen in Costa Rica at one time. We had great looks at a sauntering Jabiru, some Stilt Sandpipers sewing machined in the shallow water, flocks of Least Sands flew around, and Wilson’s Phalaropes acted like tiny ducks but where was the Ruff?

A Jabiru in flight.

After thoroughly checking this one spot where a bunch of birds were obscured by tufts of grass, I noticed that many were sort of moving out of that site and slowly spreading to other parts of the muddy flooded fields. Going back to our first spot, I started scanning there once again and within seconds, there it was. A pseudo yellowlegs with more brightly colored legs and pale edging to feathers on the back. That was it! I got Mary on the bird and while she ticked a mega, I called Anthony to tell him the news. He showed up shortly after with the other guys who had been working the muddy fields and we all enjoyed Costa Rica’s most accessible Ruff. Not long after, some other birders arrived, one of whom ticked a Ruff and several other lifers on his birthday no less (which was fantastic because what better way is there to celebrate a birding birthday?).

Two other Ruffs from Israel.

After much admiration of the Ruff, teasing out a few decidedly uncommon year Long-billed Dowitchers in the back, and looking for other birds, Mary and I had to leave for the drive back over to the other side of the mountains. We didn’t see too much of note along the way but we couldn’t complain, the twitch was a successful one that resulted in a major country and year tick. What’s next? The Aplomado Falcon that has been hanging out in Guanacaste? I could go for that…

Many thanks to local birder Juan Astorga for being adventurous enough to wander the back roads of Taboga, find this mega and share the sighting with everyone. Gracias!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *