I know of three specific times when this particular error was made in Monterey Co., including the first one of these I found 25 Sep 1979. According to the field guides I was using, with the bright buffy-orange breast, a supercilium, yellowish-green legs, and a reddish cap, it had to be a juv. Sharp-tailed Sandpiper? Right? Wrong. What would have been the 4th MTY record of "Sharp-tailed Sandpiper" was, in fact, the 4th MTY record of Ruff, a nice bright juv. Ruff (like photo upper left; slightly out-of-focus, taken by Bob Tintle years later of a different bird). What the guides failed to mention (or I failed to notice) was back pattern. On juv. Ruff, each back and covert feather is dark-centered, with broad buffy edges, forming a prominent "scaly" pattern. Also the neck is thick and the body "pear-shaped," giving the classic "Ruff" profile to the bird.
Now, Ruff has proved to be more than twice as regular a vagrant to Monterey Co. as Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. Through fall 1998, there were 20 records of Sharp-tailed Sandpiper compared to 47 records of Ruff. All Sharp-tailed records fall between Sep-Nov, while Ruff records stretch almost around the year: most in fall, a few wintering birds which linger well into spring, and a few spring migrants. The only months which currently lack records of Ruff are June & July.
In contrast, a real juv. Sharp-tailed Sandpiper (right) is much more heavily streaked about the neck and upper breast, the back has a pair of prominent white "braces" on the scapulars, the feather centers are variably black or black-and-gray with whitish, buff, or reddish edges (depending on which feather is involved), giving a prominent "zoned" look to the upperparts. The bird's shape is also completely different, its supercilium more prominent and purer white, and the undertail coverts are streaked. The tail is longer and the contrast between orange lower breast and white belly is crisp, totally unlike the buffy or even orange wash to the underparts of bright juv. Ruffs. Note particularly how broad are the reddish edges to the tertials on juv. Sharp-tailed, a nice separating feature from Pectoral Sandpiper, even at a distance (as are the streaked undertail coverts, not to mention breast pattern).
PHOTOS: The juv. Ruff was photographed by Robert F. Tintle at the Salinas wastewater ponds, Monterey Co., on 13 Oct 1989; the juv. Sharp-tailed Sandpiper was at Moonglow Dairy, Moss Landing, Monterey Co., on 23 Sep 1985. Photos © R. F. Tintle and D. Roberson, respectively.
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