These sandpiper relatives fly over 1,000 km or 600 miles in a day's migration, living so far north that few studies have been made as to their breeding habits


Region: Arctic

Destinations: Greenland

Name: Turnstone (Arenaria)

Length: 20 to 25 cm.

Weight: 85 – 170g.

Location: Coastal regions – the Arctic in the summers, migrating to various locations around the world during winter as far south as South Africa and Australia.

Conservation status: Least Concern.

Diet: Invertebrates, crustaceans, barnacles, a wide range of scavenged foods.

Appearance: Darker camouflage colours during the winter, brighter plumage during the breeding season.

How do Turnstones feed?

Turnstones are waders, wading in shallow waters. They gained the name Turnstone from their habit of turning over stones and seaweed in their search for invertebrates.

Are Turnstones social?

Turnstones do tend to be social, forming colonies ranging from tens of individuals to thousands, and they will mix with other kinds of sea birds. However they become aggressive in chasing off the other breeds when food is at stake.

How fast do Turnstones fly?

Turnstones can fly up to 65 km per hour.

What are Turnstone birthing rituals like?

Female Turnstones are sexually mature around 2 years of age; the males reach maturity at 4 years. 

Turnstones display distinctly different plumage depending on the season.

During the winter months their feathers are darker browns and greys. 

However during the breeding season their plumage takes on brighter colours – a black and white head, light brown back, white belly, with exposed red legs. 

Males arrive first at the breeding grounds somewhere in the month of May, getting to work scraping out the shallow nest. They and their previous mates (if applicable) will often return to the same breeding grounds as the previous years. 

Turnstones are monogamous and once paired off will generally return to the same mate for following breeding seasons. 

While at their breeding grounds Turnstones become extremely aggressive, flying up to 160 km to chase away invasive gulls. 

The nests are slight, usually just scrapes or small depressions in ground near areas with low vegetation. On average 4 light olive-coloured eggs are laid. The parents will take turns incubating the eggs for the following 3 to 4 weeks. 

The hatchlings are able to leave the nest soon after hatching and are able to feed themselves. They are able to fly after about a month.

How long do Turnstones live?

Turnstones live an average of 6 or 7 years in the wild. The highest recorded lifespan was a bit over 19 years of age, recorded in Finland.

How many Turnstones are there today?

Rough estimates are:

  • Ruddy Turnstones – 450,000
  • Black Turnstones – 95,000

Do Turnstones have any natural predators?

Turnstone eggs and young are prey for gulls, jaegers, ravens, and foxes. Parents have been recorded pretending to have a broken wing in order to lure predators away from their nests. Adult Turnstones are sometimes preyed upon by owls, merlins, falcons, and sparrow-hawks.

7 Terrific Turnstone Facts

  • There are actually two kinds of Turnstone – the Ruddy Turnstone (circumpolar, wintering as far south as South Africa and Australia) and the Black Turnstone (the west coast of North America, summering in Alaska).
  • You can tell a Turnstone is ready to get aggressive by its posture – a lowered tail and hunched posture indicate that there may be trouble.
  • Turnstones will fly over 500,000 km in their lifetimes.
  • Turnstones were first recorded by Swedish physician, zoologist, and botanist Carolus Linnaeus in 1758.
  • Turnstones travel more than 1000 km a day during their migrations. These migration paths can lead a Turnstone along a trip that extends more than 27,000 km in a year.
  • Turnstones are related to sandpipers.
  • Since Turnstones breed so far north there has not yet been a lot of study done on their breeding habits.