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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.

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
8.3–6.3 in
21–16 cm
Wingspan
19.7–22.4 in
50–57 cm
Weight
3–6.7 oz
84–190 g
Relative Size
Larger than a Spotted Sandpiper, smaller than a Willet.
Other Names
  • Tournepierre à collier (French)
  • Vuelvepiedras rojizo (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • For shorebirds like the Ruddy Turnstone, getting fat is critical. Unlike humans, which use carbohydrates as fuel, birds use fat to power their migrations. Birds that don’t get fat enough before they depart often leave later and some may not even make it to the breeding or wintering grounds.
  • Walking on wet and slippery rocks can be treacherous for just about anyone without good gripping shoes. Ruddy Turnstones have special feet that are somewhat spiny, with short, sharply curved toenails that help them hold on. They also have a low center of gravity thanks to their short legs that helps keep them anchored.
  • Young turnstones need to grow up and learn to fly quickly. They take their first flight when they are around 19 days old and fly thousands of miles to the nonbreeding grounds 2 days later. To make things harder, their parents will have departed by this time, leaving the youngsters to make their first migration on their own.
  • There are about 350 species of shorebirds (order Charadriiformes) in the world, but there are only 2 turnstones, the Ruddy Turnstone and the Black Turnstone, both of which occur in North America.
  • Ruddy Turnstones breeding in western Alaska and eastern Siberia are world travelers: they take different migratory routes depending on the season. In spring they head north overland through Asia from wintering areas in the North and South Pacific and Australia. In fall they head south via the Pribilof and Aleutian Islands in the Bering Sea, flying mostly over the open Pacific Ocean before reaching their southern hemisphere wintering grounds.
  • Ruddy Turnstones need to fly fast to cover the enormous distances between their breeding and nonbreeding grounds. Flight speeds of turnstones average between 27 and 47 miles per hour.
  • In 1758, Linnaeus described the Ruddy Turnstone based on a specimen collected in Gotland, Sweden.
  • The oldest recorded Ruddy Turnstone was a male, and at least 16 years, 11 months old, when he was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in New Jersey in 2012. He had been banded in Delaware in 2001.

Habitat


Shoreline

Ruddy Turnstones breed along rocky coasts and in the tundra across the High Arctic. In North America they breed in sparsely vegetated tundra near marshes, streams, and ponds. During migration they stop along coastal rocky and sandy beaches, mudflats, and shorelines of freshwater lakes to refuel. On their wintering grounds they congregate along rocky shorelines, mudflats, deltas, and sandy beaches.

Food


Insects

Ruddy Turnstones feed primarily on adult and larvae flies and midges during the breeding season that they uncover by flipping over rocks, pebbles, shells, or seaweed with their stout, slightly upturned bills. They also eat spiders, beetles, bees, and wasps. During the nonbreeding season they have a more diverse diet, eating everything from small crustaceans, to mollusks, to bird eggs. If they come across an unattended gull or tern nest they readily break open the eggs and eat the contents. They also pick at dead fish and mammals that wash up on the shores in early summer when insects have yet to emerge.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–5 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
1.4–1.8 in
3.5–4.6 cm
Egg Width
1–1.2 in
2.5–3 cm
Incubation Period
21–24 days
Nestling Period
1 days
Egg Description
Olive-green or buff speckled with brown.
Condition at Hatching
Chicks hatch covered in down and are precocial, or capable of leaving the nest within a few hours.
Nest Description

The female makes a scrape in the ground by twisting her body to and fro to form a small depression. She collects small pieces of the surrounding vegetation such as lichens or willows to line the bottom of the depression.

Nest Placement

Ground

Male and female Ruddy Turnstones explore potential nest sites within the male’s territory. Both make small scrapes in the ground with their bodies, but the female chooses the nesting location. Once she finds a spot, she makes a scrape, typically at the edge of tundra vegetation near a wet area and out of the wind. At other times she makes a scrape on bare gravel or in sand barrens.

Behavior


Ground Forager

Ruddy Turnstones strut along beaches and rocky shorelines stopping occasionally to flip rocks, seaweed, or other debris with their stout slightly upturned bill to look for insects and small crustaceans hidden beneath. They are strong fliers and speed past making sharp turns like many other shorebirds. Pairs are monogamous and territorial on the breeding grounds, often returning to the same area to mate with the same individual year after year. Upon arrival they face each other with ruffled feathers while calling and spreading their tails. After the initial face off, the male flies with slow and steady wingbeats around the territory and lands with head pushed forward, back feathers ruffled, and tail spread. After the display he follows the female everywhere, rarely standing more than 30 feet from her. Soon after, they begin looking for a place to nest. Most females lay eggs within 7 days of their arrival on the breeding grounds. In order to do this, they need to eat as much as they can as soon as they arrive. The female does most of the incubating while the male stands guard nearby, incubating on occasion. After the chicks hatch, territorial boundaries break down and families move to areas with abundant insects. Eggs and young are vulnerable to predation by Long-tailed and Parasitic jaegers, Glaucous Gulls, and foxes. When parents sense an approaching predator the male flies at the intruder while alarm calling. Upon hearing the alarm calls the female walks away from the nest to mislead the predator, and takes flight once she is far enough away from the nest. Like other shorebirds, turnstones migrate in stages. The first to leave the breeding grounds are birds that did not successfully breed, followed by females, males, and finally juvenile birds hatched that year. During migration they congregate in large groups and fly in unison to feed along rocky coasts, estuaries, rocky beaches, and sandy beaches.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Ruddy Turnstones are common and widespread, but their remote breeding grounds make it hard to estimate population trends, especially since numbers tend to fluctuate naturally from year to year. The North American breeding population was estimated at 267,000 in 1999; in 2006 it was 8% lower, at 245,000. A separate study estimated a 77% decline in the number of birds detected at Delaware Bay between 1988 and 2007. It has been reported that counts on the coast of North America declined substantially between the 1980s and 2011, indicating that the population size could be lower than the 2006 estimate. Ruddy Turnstones rate an 11 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2016 State of North America's Birds Watch List. However, they are listed as a species of high conservation concern by both the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network and the U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan. Threats to turnstones include habitat loss along their migratory pathways and on their nonbreeding winter grounds, changes to their food resources, and plastic pollution. Coastal areas are prime sites for development, but beach development can eliminate or reduce wintering and stopover habitat. Turnstones and other shorebirds also rely on key places to refuel during migration. Delaware Bay is one of those critical stopover sites. Migrating shorebirds refuel on horseshoe crab eggs that are laid on the beaches in Delaware Bay in the spring. Overfishing of horseshoe crabs for bait has decreased the number of eggs available for shorebirds, which can affect their ability to arrive on the breeding grounds well fed and ready to breed. Stricter regulations on horseshoe crab harvest have been put in place in many regions and populations are now stable in the Delaware Bay region, but in the New York and New England areas horseshoe crab populations are still declining. Plastic pollution can also impact shorebirds as they mistake tiny bits of plastic for food. Once ingested, plastic often gets stuck in their digestive system and can result in death. Consider helping out on a beach cleanup near you or the next time you visit the beach, bring a bag and pick up a bit of trash. Reducing the amount of plastic you use can also help reduce the amount of plastic waste that can make its way to ocean shores.

Credits

Range Map Help

Ruddy Turnstone Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Long-distance migrant. In North America, Ruddy Turnstones migrate to western Europe, southeast Asia, Australia, South America, and the west and east coasts of North America. Some birds travel more than 6,500 miles between breeding and nonbreeding grounds.

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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