Birds of North Carolina:
their Distribution and Abundance
Ruff - Calidris pugnax
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General Comments This Old World breeder makes annual visits to the eastern shore of North America, and its appearance in North Carolina, almost exclusively on the coast, is not quite annual. There are no mountain records for the Ruff, and hardly any from the Piedmont and inner Coastal Plain. When here, the Ruff is always noted just as a single bird. This is literally a unique species; males and females often go by different common names, because each male has a somewhat different color pattern/phase from others, often like Rock Pigeons. A male is called a "Ruff", and a female a "Reeve". Thankfully, the English/common name for the species is Ruff, though a few lists call the species "Ruff (Reeve)" or even "Ruff and Reeve"! This seems to be a frequently mid-identified species in the state, and thus some published reports are likely incorrect; Pectoral Sandpiper is the usual culprit, but Stilt Sandpipers have been misidentified as Ruffs on occasion, as probably also have yellowlegs and dowitchers. While in North Carolina, the males are seldom in full regalia, though some records are of males still in partial breeding plumage; most sightings are of females or basic-plumaged males. Typical habitats are brackish to fresh pools and impoundments, especially in dredge spoil ponds. It tends to avoid salt water and most tidal mudflats. For whatever reason, Ruffs tend to avoid the several ideal-looking impoundments at Pea and Bodie islands, though there are some records. Also, Ruffs tend not to linger at a given site, and thus few records are of multiple days or with multiple observers. Why North Carolina has so few records, as compared with South Carolina, is a complete mystery, as the species occurs on the East Coast mainly from Virginia northward.

Despite this being a completely unique species of shorebird, the AOU changed its scientific name in 2013. Instead of it being in the monotypic genus Philomachus, it was moved into Calidris, which contains the peep and other small to medium-sized sandpipers.

Breeding Status Nonbreeder
NC BRC List Definitive
State Status
U.S. Status
State Rank SZ
Global Rank G5
Coastal Plain Transient/visitor during the warmer months, essentially along the coast. There are at least 47 reports, though a handful are probably incorrectly identified. Coastally, very rare in spring, and very rare to rare in summer and early fall; most records are from Carteret northward, though scattered records are present along the southern coast. Casual in late summer, fall, and early winter in Tidewater and farther inland; possibly the only spring report inland was one at a catfish farm along NC 33 (Beaufort) on 4 Apr 2022. Mainly late Mar to mid-May, and early Jul to early Sep; scattered records from 21 Mar to 7 Nov. Remarkable are winter records of single birds at Lake Mattamuskeet, 29 Dec 1991 - 4 Jan 1992; at Goldsboro, 15 Dec 2001; and at Alligator River NWR, 11 Dec 2015 - 1 Jan 2016. Peak counts: "2", two differently-plumaged males at Mattamuskeet NWR (Hyde) from 7-12 Jul 2019, one seen on 7 and 11 Jul and the other overlapping on 9 and 12 Jul, though no one saw both on the same date; all other records are of single individuals.
Piedmont Accidental in spring, and casual in fall (four reports), with all five reports from the eastern Piedmont. The spring record was of a female collected at Raleigh on 6 May 1892 (Birds of North Carolina, 1942). The fall reports, if all correctly identified, are of singles seen at Falls Lake, 14 Aug 1985; at Jordan Lake, 1 Sep 1988; at Falls Lake, 2-3 Sep 2002; and at Jordan Lake, 19 Sep 2009.
Mountains No records.
Finding Tips The species is simply too rare in the state to hope to find by intentionally searching for it. Carefully check impoundments and sewage/water treatment ponds, especially with a scope, along and near the coast, mainly in summer and early fall.
1/2* to *
Attribution LeGrand[2023-03-10], LeGrand[2022-12-22], LeGrand[2022-09-12]
NC Map
Map depicts all counties with a report (transient or resident) for the species.
Click on county for list of all known species.