Over the years, I've had a number of people ask me what my "spark bird" was. I typically just launch into the story about ducks and a sewage plant, but I think it is time I come clean. It was not a fowl-saturated sewage plant that cast my fate, but a wayward Ruff.
What is a "spark bird", you ask? It is the bird that took you by the hand (or for some, the throat) and made you the birder you are today. It is the bird that inspired you, that kicked you over the edge of normalcy into the oblivion of birdwatching. People have all sorts of spark birds...something common in their backyard, something exotic seen on a tropical vacation, a majestic raptor soaring overhead. It is the spark that lit the fire so to speak, but I prefer to see it as the fateful dose that plunges one into a hopeless and beautiful addiction. If you are wondering why "spark bird" is so damn cheesey sounding, I have the answer: it's a term made up by a birder. What else would you expect? To my ears, the phrase is reprehensibly corny, but the term has been accepted by the birding community, and not even my hefty influence can stop it.
The reason I usually tell people the sewage treatment plant story is because it took my interest in birds from about a 6 up to a 8. My father, although he isn't a birder, gave me the nature bug, so I knew about hella birds even before birding. Being born a nerd, as a kid I would look though bird books in awe of all the different birds out there that I assumed I would never see. But one day, my dad and I stumbled upon a sewage treatment plant that was loaded with birds. There were all these ducks that I'd only seen in books before...Canvasbacks, Redheads, Blue-winged Teal, etc., and it wasn't too challenging to tell them apart. I was pretty stoked.
Somehow that foul experience translated into meeting some birders. One day I went out with Don DesJardin, holder and protector of the highest Ventura County (CA) list. We went to all these seemingly random, kind of disgusting places where I never expected anything interesting to occur. We saw all sorts of new birds for me...Pectoral Sandpiper, Common Snipe (Wilson's didn't exist back then), Mountain Plover (a pretty rare bird).
One spot we checked was this gross cement-lined drainage ditch. Don said he Saw a Ruff there recently. Being 12, and not a birder, I didn't know what the fuck a Ruff was. Don explained it was this Old World shorebird that looked sort of like a fat yellowlegs, except with bright orange legs. This was the first time I really understood the concept of a "vagrant"; I had no idea that A) Birds got lost, B) Birds got really, really lost and C) people look for these birds and D) people actually find these birds. It was a watershed moment.
It wasn't difficult to pick out the Ruff, foraging between overturned shopping carts and empty plastic bags. Despite it's glowing legs, it was a nondescript bird, but I was captivated. CAPTIVATED. Looking at it did not get old. I remember the thought occurring to me that this was strange. Why couldn't I stop looking at this relatively large sandpiper? I didn't even know it existed just an hour before.
And so after that fateful day, I immediately went into deep decline and became a total birder. My childhood enthusiasm for reptiles and amphibians practically vanished, replaced by a neverending thirst for bird observation. The rest is history.
This Ruff, of course, is not the bird of 1994, but a continuing bird in Alameda, CA. Crab Cove is a random tidal cove that I never even knew existed until this bird was reported, although the location is only 15 minutes from my house. One of the many benefits to skankily chasing a bird you've seen many times is getting introduced to new places...and when you've been birding for as long as I have, new places to bird are embarrassingly exciting.
As with many of the Ruffs I've seen over the years, this bird likes to travel with yellowlegs. If you go out to Crab Cove for this bird (which is likely still there), look for the flock of Greater Yellowlegs. If the yellowlegs aren't there, the Ruff probably isn't either. Get there right after high tide, and watch the shorebirds come in to feed.
While the Ruff was pacing back and forth in front of me, this bright male Black-necked Stilt was doing the same. Stilts are far more likeable this time of year than when they are nesting, when seeing them often entails getting divebombed and scolded (yap-yap-yap-yap-yap-yip-yap-yap-yap, etc.), which gets old quickly.
It's a good thing I chased the Ruff, because the list of decent birding spots within 15 minutes from me is very, very short, and it's nice to have a new local place to check out. But the real story here is that its always nice to meet up with an old friend, especially one who changed my life forever. Post-Ruff, things have never been the same.