Thursday, 12 May 2016

Ruff at the Brighton Constructed Wetlands

I could not resist driving down to Brighton yesterday after work to see the male Ruff that had been seen there over the last few days at the constructed wetlands after being found by Bill Gilmour and Mark Ansell on May 9th. Previously I had only viewed one Ruff - a distant male last winter in Morocco - so this was a bird I was hoping to study from close range.

Ruff is the most frequently observed Eurasian species of shorebird in North America, and up until a year or two ago was common enough that the Ontario Bird Records Committee did not require documentation if one was found. But sightings in Ontario have dried up in recent years and I was still waiting to lay eyes on my first one on this side of the Atlantic, despite having chased (and missed) at least three birds already over the years.

The drive down was fairly uneventful and I just snuck through Toronto before rush hour. I pulled up to the Brighton constructed wetlands just as the day was transitioning from "afternoon" into "evening".

It did not take too long to spot the bird - bigger than a yellowlegs, and with such unique plumage details, it is impossible to miss! Fortunately the bird was fairly close to shore, and after a bit of stealth work I had positioned myself at the edge of the cattails directly across from it.

Ruff  (left) and Least Sandpiper - Brighton Constructed Wetlands, Northumberland County, Ontario

It did not show concern at all with my presence and continued to feed on the mudflats in front of me. The sun was lighting the scene a little too much from the side, but if the bird was at just the right angle the lighting was good. What a fantastic opportunity....

Ruff - Brighton Constructed Wetlands, Northumberland County, Ontario

This was another new one for my Ontario list; my 40th species of shorebird, and 378th species of bird overall.

Ruff - Brighton Constructed Wetlands, Northumberland County, Ontario

Ruff is the shorebird species with perhaps the most unique mating ritual. Much like grouse and turkeys, some Ruffs gather at a lek in the spring, and the males perform elaborate displays to either attract the attention of females, or to establish a "pecking order" amongst the males. Central to their displays are the elaborate neck feathers that some males exhibit, which, when erected, vaguely resemble the ruffs worn in Western Europe in the 1500s and 1600s, for which the Ruff is named after.

Ruff (left) and Lesser Yellowlegs - Brighton Constructed Wetlands, Northumberland County, Ontario

Ruff - Brighton Constructed Wetlands, Northumberland County, Ontario

There are three different male "forms". Dominant males (over 80% of all males) have black or chestnut colored neck feathers, and between 5 and 20 of these dominant males usually hold residency at a lek. These dominant males actively court females and show aggression to other males. Satellite males (16% of all males) have white ruffs and don't actively hold territory in a lek - instead, they join a territory already occupied by a male and several females and attempt to mate with the females. Generally their presence is tolerated by the dominant males because having the satellite male on his territory increases his odds of attracting additional female partners. The third type of male is called the "faeder" male. It more resembles a female in plumage as it lacks the elaborate neck feathers of the other males. A faeder male will blend in with a group of females on a lek, and "steal" matings when a female crouches down to solicit copulation from a dominant male!

Ruff - Brighton Constructed Wetlands, Northumberland County, Ontario

The bird in Brighton appears to be a satellite male, beginning to show his white ruff which is starting to grow in. It was a pleasure to spend an hour with this bird yesterday and hopefully one day I can make it up to Russia or Scandinavia to watch Ruffs on their lek.


  1. That is a really nice bird!
    Been a while since I have seen a Ruff. They don't seem as regular as they were at one point.

  2. A very distinctive plumage on this one. Congrats Josh, on getting it, and getting such fine pics in the process.