Best known as a passage migrant, and great bird to see during the early weeks of autumn passage, the Ruff is one of our most interesting waders. Not only does it exhibit unusual breeding behaviour – about which more later – it can also present something of an identification challenge, so variable is its appearance, size and plumage. In fact, birdwatchers sometimes joke that if you don’t recognise a mystery wader that has dropped in to your patch then the chances are that it will be a Ruff.
Display on the leks
Ruff are unusual in that during the breeding season the males gather at display sites, known as leks, where they compete with each other to attract females. The females only visit the leks to secure a mate and the males play no further part in caring for the resulting offspring after their brief liaison. In order to attract a female the male displays on his small territory or ‘residence’, which is just 50 cm in diameter and visible as a bare patch of earth or trampled grass. The display involves wing fluttering, bobbing movements and squatting and is used to impress a potential mate. The display is enhanced by the male’s plumage, most notably a collar of feathers around the front and sides of the neck – the ‘ruff’ – and a pair of head tufts.
Interestingly, not all of the males on a lek adopt this approach and several different types of male have been identified. The territory holding males described above are known as ‘independent’ males and can be recognised by their dark coloured nuptial plumage. ‘Satellite’ males, which have pale coloured ruffs, do not establish a territory of their own but instead associate with one of the independent males and seek access to females through this – surprisingly these males are not chased away by the independent males. A third type of male, known as a ‘faeder’, does not develop the ruff or head tufts but instead looks like a female. Like true females, which are known as ‘reeves’, these female mimics are considerably smaller than other males.
Although a displaying male Ruff in all its breeding finery is visually stunning you are unlikely to come across one here in the UK, where the species has been a very scarce breeder since the population underwent a major decline in the 1800s. You may, however, catch up with males still in their breeding plumage as they begin to head south on migration. The earliest individuals can turn up at wetland and coastal sites from July onwards, courtship over and with the females still much further north and left to raise a brood on their own. Passage birds will be moving towards wintering sites in Africa, most of which are located within the Sahelian floodplains, with just a few hundred birds remaining to use UK estuaries during the winter months.
The loss of the Ruff as a more widespread breeding species within the UK reflects the drainage of wet grassland sites as landowners sought to improve the quality of their land for agriculture. The species may now be facing pressures on its wintering grounds in Africa, where increasing levels drought force the Ruff to congregate at a smaller number of sites and making it easier for hunters to target them. The drought conditions may also cause problems for the birds as they try to fatten up ahead of their spring migration, leading to mass mortality and delayed arrival on the breeding grounds.
If you get the chance to catch up with Ruff on autumn passage, or better still on breeding sites in Scandinavia or the Netherlands, then you’ll discover for yourself just what an amazing bird this is.