Ruff At Argyle

On Saturday 13th March 1993, I parked just off the road near the Argyle Diamond Mine where I could observe a small swampy area created by the heavy rains in late January and February.  I observed a migratory wader about 10 metres away standing in some sparse swampy grass (about 20 to 25cm high) next to some typha reeds.  After a few minutes, it flew a few metres and landed on the sandy bank of a shallow channel.  I didn't get a good look at its flight, but I noticed that the white on the rump did not extend up the back like a Common Greenshank.  It gave a very brief but not very loud call which I thought afterwards were a few (three, probably four, or five) short quick notes.

A second wader immediately flew in and the first cowered (almost sat down in the edge of the water) and then they played 'tag' for a short while, before they flew to an open sandy area behind a small, sparse bush about 25 to 30 metres from me on the edge of the channel.  The second wader walked around behind some grassy tufts (and I didn't see it again), but the first wader sat down on the sand.

I got out of the car and moved to a spot on the road with a clear view of the bird about 20 metres away.  I took my Simpson & Day field guide with me.  I observed the bird for several minutes while scanning through the field guide before it eventually stood up.

It walked without any hurry across the few metres of sand, stopping every two or three steps and bobbing its tail very frequently (although its head stayed fairly still).  It eventually walked into fairly dense grass tussocks (about 40 to 50cm tall) about four or five metres from the water.  I never saw it again, although I managed to get to about 10 metres by going along the road and then back along the channel.

All up, I had observed it for 15 to 20 minutes and I observed the following features.  It had longer (more green than yellow) legs and was taller than a Wood Sandpiper (I estimated that it was a little shorter than a Common Greenshank).  It stood quite upright with a longish neck which was mostly buff or brown/grey in colour. Its head appeared smallish (for its size) and was of a similar general colour (although darker on the crown) with a paler but indistinct stripe above the eye which didn't seem to extend to the bill.  The bill was dark, not very long (but certainly not short) and fairly solid or stout.  The upper parts were significantly darker and appeared scaly.  The underneath was whitish.  I did not properly observe the rump and tail in flight, other than to get the impression of a dark back, some white then a dark tail.  I did not observe the underneath of the wings.

I knew that I had not seen this species before.  After looking through Simpson & Day, my feeling was that it might be a Ruff, but my impression of the call seemed wrong, and the eyebrow looked a little different and it was not nearly as scaly as the illustrations.  I looked at a copy of Pizzey that night and was more confident.  When I returned home two weeks later, I looked at 'Shorebirds An identification guide to the waders of the world' by Peter Hayman and others, 'Shorebirds in Australia' by Brett Lane, and 'The Great Australian Birdfinder' by Michael Morcombe.  I was satisfied.

At the time the most remarkable observation of the bird was its behaviour, and I was surprised that this was not mentioned in any reference.  The bobbing of the tail (similar to the Wood Sandpiper although it kept its head up), the sitting down on the sand, the standing in the grass, the wading in shallow water along the channel, the stop start walking across the sand, and finally the disappearance into long grass out of the water were all behaviour that I was unfamiliar with among other waders.

Copyright Frank O'Connor 1997-2002 Visits Last Modified 31st January 2002