Sooner or later, as we explore the world, we find certain places that we connect with. The forests of the Northeast are among my favorite places to be, but there is also something about the ocean that captures my imagination. I’m not talking about the big waves of Maui, or even the ocean beaches of New England, but rather the quiet, sheltered shorelines that delineate a more subdued meeting of ocean and earth.
Along just such a shoreline, at this time of year, you might come upon a solitary bird with a very striking color pattern. This gorgeous little bird — the ruddy turnstone — will be a particular treat to see. I try to visit the ocean once every summer and there was one time when I was able to spend over an hour following a turnstone up and down a quiet beach. Luckily, I had my camera.
The first thing you will notice about the turnstone is its coloration. The reddish feathers of the back and wings contrast sharply with the pure white breast and the jet-black markings on the neck and head. The wings are also marked with striking black-and-white patterns that are only visible when the bird is in flight.
The patterns of black and white on the head are variable from one individual to the next. Males tend to show much more white on the top of their heads and the bird I was watching definitely had a lot of brown streaking, so I am fairly confident it was a female.
The most interesting bit of her behavior was the way she foraged for food.
Plovers tend to be plump little birds with short beaks and big eyes. They forage for food that is either on, or just below, the surface of the sand.
Sandpipers tend to have longer legs and beaks that they use to search for food farther out in the water or deeper beneath the sand.
Turnstones, however, have their own special little niche.
Turnstones have short beaks and big eyes, which allow them to find their food right near the surface of the sand. In rockier beaches, there are many places for the small crustaceans and invertebrates to hide, most notably under the stones. Other birds have to walk past the rocks, but the turnstones have figured out a little trick. Can you guess what they do? By golly you’re right — they turn the stones over.
The sandpipers and plovers weave around the stones on a beach, like slalom skiers, but the turnstones can plow straight ahead. Sometimes, they come to a rock that is too big, but if you ever see one of these birds you will be impressed by the size of some of the rocks they can move.
Turnstones breed in the Arctic where the summer is short, so their migrations occur at surprising times. Turnstones head north during the end of May and the first week of June. Their southerly migration, more leisurely and prolonged due to the higher number of individuals, occurs from the middle of July to the end of September.
If you find yourself near the coast in the next few weeks, head for a rocky beach to see if you can spot a ruddy turnstone.
The younger birds will blend in, but the adult turnstones will still wear their breeding plumage for at least another month. Head out at low tide, particularly during the morning, and you should have a fantastic time.
Bill Danielson is a professional nature photographer and author living in Altamont. Contact him at www.speakingofnature.com.