Black Turnstone: A Remarkable Shorebird of the Pacific Coast
The black turnstone (Arenaria melanocephala) is a medium-sized shorebird that breeds in Alaska and winters along the Pacific coast of North America. It is named for its habit of turning over stones, shells, and seaweed to find food on rocky shores and estuaries. It has a distinctive black-and-white plumage, a short orange bill, and bright orange legs.
Black turnstones are highly social birds that form flocks of up to several hundred individuals during migration and winter. They often associate with other shorebirds, such as surfbirds, dunlins, and sanderlings. They feed on a variety of invertebrates, such as insects, worms, crustaceans, mollusks, and echinoderms. They also eat some plant material, such as seeds and algae.
Black turnstones are monogamous and territorial during the breeding season. They nest on the ground in dry tundra or rocky slopes near the coast. They lay three to four eggs in a shallow scrape lined with grasses and feathers. Both parents incubate the eggs for about 24 days and care for the young until they fledge at about 28 days. The young are precocial and can feed themselves soon after hatching.
Black turnstones are not considered threatened or endangered, but they face some threats from habitat loss, disturbance, predation, and climate change. They are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in the United States and Canada, and by the Convention on Migratory Species in Mexico. They are also listed as a species of special concern in California.
Black turnstones are fascinating birds that deserve our attention and respect. They are part of the rich biodiversity of the Pacific coast and an indicator of the health of the marine ecosystem. By learning more about them and their conservation needs, we can help ensure their survival for generations to come.
How to Identify Black Turnstones
Black turnstones are easy to recognize by their striking black-and-white plumage and bright orange legs and bill. They have a black head, neck, breast, back, and tail, with white spots on the wings and back. The belly and undertail are white, with black streaks on the flanks. The bill is short, thick, and slightly upturned. The eyes are dark brown, with a narrow white eye-ring. The legs are long and orange-red.
In flight, black turnstones show a white wing stripe and a white rump and tail. They also have a distinctive call, a loud and harsh “kreet” or “kerrit”, often repeated several times.
Black turnstones are similar in size and shape to the ruddy turnstone (Arenaria interpres), but they have different plumage patterns. Ruddy turnstones have a brown back with black markings, a black-and-white head, and a reddish-orange breast in breeding plumage. In non-breeding plumage, they are gray-brown above and white below, with a black-and-white face pattern. Ruddy turnstones also have a longer and more curved bill than black turnstones.
Where to Find Black Turnstones
Black turnstones breed only in Alaska, on the coastal tundra near estuaries or lagoons. They nest in small colonies or loose groups, often near other shorebirds such as red phalaropes (Phalaropus fulicarius) or semipalmated plovers (Charadrius semipalmatus). They prefer sites with dry vegetation, such as grasses or sedges, and avoid wet or marshy areas.
During migration and winter, black turnstones are found along the Pacific coast of North America, from southern Alaska to Baja California. They favor rocky shores, breakwaters, jetties, and islets, where they feed on the abundant marine life. They also visit mudflats and sandy beaches at times, especially during high tides or storms. They are rarely seen inland or away from the coast.
Black turnstones are usually seen in small flocks of up to several hundred individuals. They often associate with other shorebirds, such as surfbirds (Aphriza virgata), dunlins (Calidris alpina), and sanderlings (Calidris alba). They are active during the day and night, depending on the tide cycle. They roost on rocks or islands during high tide, and feed on exposed shores during low tide.