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Ruddy Turnstone

Arenaria interpres ORDER: CHARADRIIFORMES FAMILY: SCOLOPACIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

A shorebird that looks almost like a calico cat, the Ruddy Turnstone's orange legs and uniquely patterned black-and-white head and chest make them easy to pick out of a crowd. These long-distance migrants breed in the arctic tundra, but spend the off seasons on rocky shorelines and sandy beaches on both North American coasts (as well as South America, Eurasia, Africa, and Australia). They use their stout, slightly upturned bill to flip debris on the beach to uncover insects and small crustaceans.

Keys to identification Help

Shorebirds
Shorebirds
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    The Ruddy Turnstone is a short, stocky, and oval-shaped shorebird. They have a stout and slightly upturned bill.

  • Color Pattern

    Breeding males have unique black-and-white markings on the head and throat and a chestnut and black variegated (calico catlike) pattern on the back. Breeding females are paler than males. Nonbreeding adults have brown ghosting of the breeding plumage pattern. Juveniles look similar to nonbreeding birds, but have rusty edges to the feathers. All Ruddy Turnstones have orange legs, but they are brighter during the breeding season. In flight, Ruddy Turnstones show a unique color pattern: white stripe down the back, black tail stripe, white rump, and white stripe down the wings.

  • Behavior

    Ruddy Turnstones flip rocks, pebbles, and seaweed along shorelines in search of food. They rarely wade in waters more than a few inches deep, generally foraging out of the water where the surf deposits shells, rocks, and seaweed. During migration and on the wintering grounds they gather in groups of 10 to over 1,000.

  • Habitat

    Ruddy Turnstones breed in the tundra of northern North America. But many nonbreeding birds also hang around the coastal shores in the lower 48 even in the summer. During migration they use freshwater shorelines, mudflats, rocky shorelines, and sandy beaches. On the wintering grounds they occur along coastal areas with mudflats, sandy beaches, and rocky shores.

Range Map Help

Ruddy Turnstone Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Breeding

    Ruddy Turnstone

    Breeding
    • Chunky and oval-shaped shorebird
    • Short, orange legs
    • Calico patterned back
    • Dark breast
    • Black-and-white head
    • © Dave Wendelken, Port Mahon Road, Little Creek Wildlife Area, Delaware, May 2010
  • Nonbreeding

    Ruddy Turnstone

    Nonbreeding
    • Chunky and oval-shaped shorebird
    • Short, orange legs
    • Dark breast
    • Slightly upturned bill
    • © Tom Buehl Jr., Barnegat Light, New Jersey, February 2017
  • Adult

    Ruddy Turnstone

    Adult
    • White stripe down the wings
    • Black tail band
    • White central stripe on back
    • © hjhipster, Kimble Beach (Delaware Bay), Cape May Courthouse\, New Jersey, May 2010
  • Breeding

    Ruddy Turnstone

    Breeding
    • Chunky and oval-shaped shorebird
    • Short, orange legs
    • Calico patterned back
    • Dark breast
    • © Doug Sonerholm, Alaska, August 2010
  • Nonbreeding

    Ruddy Turnstone

    Nonbreeding
    • Chunky and oval-shaped shorebird
    • Short, orange legs
    • Dark breast
    • © Bill Thompson, Provincetown, Massachusetts, November 2011
  • Nonbreeding

    Ruddy Turnstone

    Nonbreeding
    • Chunky and oval-shaped shorebird
    • Short, orange legs
    • Dark breast
    • © Bill Thompson, Middletown, Rhode Island, December 2012
  • Breeding

    Ruddy Turnstone

    Breeding
    • Chunky and oval-shaped shorebird
    • Short, orange legs
    • Calico patterned back
    • Dark breast
    • Black-and-white head
    • © Daniel Behm, Point Mouillie, Michigan, August 2010

Similar Species

Similar Species

Their chunky size in combination with their short legs and a short, slightly upturned bill helps distinguish turnstones from other shorebirds. Black Turnstones of the Pacific Coast lack the Ruddy’s reddish coloring and have darker legs—although sometimes their legs appear orangish, they are not as bright as a Ruddy Turnstone's. Surfbirds have yellow legs and are mostly gray, not ruddy. In breeding plumage, Surfbirds have rufous markings on the wings but are not as brightly colored as Ruddy Turnstones and lack the bold black markings on the head and chest. Rock Sandpipers and Purple Sandpipers forage almost exclusively on rocky coasts in winter and have longer, slightly drooping bills than Ruddy Turnstones. They also are gray in the nonbreeding season and during the breeding season they lack the bold rusty and black patterning of Ruddy Turnstones.

Find This Bird

To find a Ruddy Turnstone, hit the beach; almost any time of the year will do, but they are more numerous in the spring and fall. Ruddy Turnstones also show up at inland marshes and lakeshores, but they are more common on the coast. They don’t wade in deeper waters, so be on the lookout for them at the water’s edge, where the high tide deposits shells, rocks, seaweed, and other debris. At higher tides when there’s less exposed shoreline, look for them in rocky outcrops along the shore. Most often you can get good looks at turnstones with binoculars but as with many shorebirds, having a spotting scope will help you get better looks without disturbing them.

Get Involved

Help clean up a beach near you on International Coastal Cleanup Day. Learn more at Ocean Conservancy.

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