Turnstone a distinctive shorebird year-round

By Jay V. Huner
Joural Correspondent


The Ruddy Turnstone is found year-round
but most abundant during the spring migration.
It is found regulary in the Piney Woods region.
Most folks think of shorebirds being associated with seashores. But, there is plenty of shore habitat far from the sea in swamps and marshes and along the shores of streams, bayous, rivers, lakes and reservoirs. So, shorebirds are regularly found near piney woods.

One very distinctive shorebird is the medium-sized, short-legged Ruddy Turnstone. The late Professor George Lowery, Jr. used the term "calicoback" to describe the Ruddy Turnstone and many field guides use the term "harlequin" instead. In fact, Professor Lowery uses the term in his description: "Its unique harlequin pattern of black and reddish brown, interspersed with white patches, and its orange feet make it extremely attractive in appearance." There is a distinct black bib on the breast and the face is said to be "zebra striped". When breeding birds take flight, the vertical reddish brown stripes on the wings generate a very colorful pattern in combination with the white and black plumage.

Most birds have a breeding plumage and a non-breeding plumage. The Ruddy Turnstone is no exception. The pattern described by Professor Lowery is the breeding plumage. The birds lose the ruddy, reddish brown plumage during the non-breeding season.

Ruddy Turnstones are present in our region year round but are most abundant in during spring migration and fall migration. For shorebirds, "fall" is a misnomer in terms of the human calendar. Most of our shorebirds including the turnstones breed in the high latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere with their young becoming free flying in early July. Adults generally depart for southern wintering grounds in July followed by their off spring. Ecologists refer to this movement as "fall" migration!

What makes a Ruddy Turnstone a "turnstone"? The turnstones are blocky birds with sturdy bills. They literally turn over stones and shells to seek food including small crustaceans, worms, and insects sheltered below. This is reasonably easy with small stones and shells but the turnstones are able to turn over larger stones and shells using their bodies.

Ruddy Turnstones will probe into sand and muddy substrates for various food items. They also will plow into mats of vegetation to dislodge various food items. They will hang around decomposing carrion and pick out fly maggots. And, they are not above picking at garbage seeking tasty items. I once saw several turnstones feeding here and there, primarily on discarded pieces of fish bait, on the public fishing pier at Gulf Shores, Alabama.

Where are good places to find Rudy Turnstones? Some can be found along the Gulf Coast through the year with numbers being greatest in the April-May and August-September period during migration. I do most of my coastal birding on the beaches in Cameron Parish, Louisiana and rarely go there without finding turnstones. They are usually present in the beaches on and near Grand Isle. They also can be found in good numbers during migration in working wetlands where rice, crawfish, and rice/crawfish fields are being drained.

The Ruddy Turnstone is found around the globe. Its close relative the Black Turnstone is associated with the West Coast of North America. This is a black and white version of the Ruddy Turnstone. Some novices might confuse it with the non-breeding Ruddy Turnstone but there is no black bib and the upper body is slate gray. If you think you have found a Black Turnstone east of the Rocky Mountains, make sure you get some decent pictures!

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