Ruddy Turnstone

Plump, short-legged and dressed like a clown, this industrious little shorebird is pure delight

By Susan Campbell

Identifying diminutive shorebirds, scrambling around ahead of the waves, tends to challenge birdwatchers and is, in most cases, simply overlooked by the general public. But there is one, the ruddy turnstone, which just may catch your eye. This plump, short-legged little bird, dressed like a clown, certainly stands out among beach-combing birds. Its crazy orange, brown, black and white back plumage, stubby bill and bright orange legs are unmistakable. Amazingly, such a pattern is excellent camouflage away from the beach, among the rocks and debris, where this bird is most often found. Adult individuals in breeding plumage are the brightest. Immature and non-breeding individuals are more muted. But ruddies always have that distinctive squatty profile. In flight, these birds flash a black and white dorsal pattern that is unmistakable as well. A white stripe extends down the back in addition to bold white stripes in the wings and a broad white patch along the base of the tail. Such coloration is also eye-grabbing and is likely a signal to other turnstones, whether it is a potential mate or a competitor for a patch of foraging habitat.

Ruddies are rather specialized foragers. The upturned bill is excellent for flipping stones and is, not surprisingly, where the bird’s name originates. Turnstones will turn up all kinds of debris in their quest for food. In summer, this is most often flies and/or fly larvae. But the birds are far less picky away from the breeding grounds, scarfing up a variety of invertebrates. Unfortunately, ruddy turnstones have been found to inadvertently ingest small bits of plastic, which can get trapped in their digestive systems with fatal consequences. This is yet another reason to be very careful not to leave litter of any kind when out and about on our beaches.

If you take the time to look closely, you will find that ruddy turnstones can be found in a variety of locations along our Southeastern coastline during the cooler months. When wading, they are only found in water a couple of inches deep, given their short legs. They may poke at mud or sand for crustaceans. However, ruddies are far more likely found along groins, moist shoreline or up at the tide line peeking into crevices and turning objects in their search for the next meal. Interestingly, turnstones also have specialized feet that are somewhat spiny and are armed with curved toenails that even allow them to move over large, wet rocks on jetties. It probably does not hurt that ruddy turnstones also have a low center of gravity when they clamber about in such precarious habitat. Last but not least, do not be surprised to see these crazy little birds foraging in open grassy areas, especially after a heavy rain.

Ruddy turnstones are long-distance migrants and therefore require a thick layer of fat by the time migration rolls around. That means many hours of uninterrupted feeding in both spring and fall. If they cannot find enough to eat, they cannot depart. These birds typically fly in small flocks and use powered flight for thousands of miles to get to their destination. Most of the North American breeding population ends up in Central America or along the coast of South America. So good numbers should be passing through our area in the coming weeks and, fortunately, some of these calico-colored sandpipers will even linger through the winter. If you are close to any moist spots close to the beach, keep your eyes peeled and you may be surprised to find a ruddy turnstone in your sights — before you know it.

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