Ruddy turnstones and grey-tailed tattlers on a rock
Ruddy turnstones and tattlers regularly share rock roosts at high tide. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

A tale of human flesh and a loaf of bread

In human terms, the modus operandi of the ruddy turnstone puts it in a category somewhere between the Artful Dodger and Hannibal Lecter.

To Birdlife International the chunky wader with the little orange legs and distinctive ‘harlequin’ breeding plumage is a bird of ‘least concern’ – in sustainability terms anyway.

But this is no run of the mill wader. Inquisitive, quirky and artful though it is, the turnstone (Arenaria interpres) also has a dark side; but more of that later.

Northerly breeder

According to Birdlife Australia, the ruddy turnstone vies for the record of the world’s most northerly breeding shorebird. Its journey from the very edge of the Arctic sends it island-hopping back across the Pacific to Australasia where it is a common sight in summer.

You will usually find them working among rocks or through seaweed along pebbly beaches. Their wedge-shaped, slightly up-tilted bill allows them to swiftly and easily turn over stones, shells and other objects of interest to find food beneath. Hence their name!

Turnstone pulling feathers from sibling
Non-breeding ruddy turnstones indulge in a bit of GBH. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Phenomenal list

The Audubon Society credits turnstones with a phenomenal list of recorded food items, including: insects, spiders, seeds, berries, moss, crustaceans (including barnacles, crabs and amphipods), molluscs, worms, sea urchins, small fish, and food scraps thrown out in garbage dumps. There is evidence they are also partial to human corpses, coconuts and tern eggs.

With a diet like that, the turnstone seems to be less likely than many other wader species to be troubled by the global loss of tidal feeding grounds.

Quirky behaviour

If turnstones do have a weakness it is their relative indifference to human proximity. Not that many photographers and researchers are complaining, including the Global Flyway Network’s Chris Hassell in Broome, WA.

That he has a more than passing interest in these much-travelled sandpipers is revealed by his use of ‘turnstone’ at the beginning of his email address.

Coincidentally, and unbeknown to me, while I was crouched at the base of a pindan cliff photographing roosting waders on Roebuck Bay recently, he and a colleague from China were directly above scoping and recording tagged birds.

Something new

Back up the cliff from the beach and breathing hard, I sought the ‘shade’ of a sparsely leafed tree where the two researchers were already glued to their scopes.

Ruddy turnstone looking for food on beach
Distinctive harlequin breeding plumage and an efficient wedge-shaped bill. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

“Now there’s something I’ve not seen before,” Chris announced in his ‘Lest-oh’ (Leicester) accent – still unmistakeable after umpteen years in Australia. “I’ve got a ruddy turnstone [in the scope] that appears to be cleaning or checking the vent feathers of other birds on the roost. Maybe it’s looking for ticks or some other form of ‘food’?”

(Bet the Audubon Society hasn’t got that sort of behaviour on its list!)

Loaf of bread

Then he recalled the “true” story of the turnstone and the loaf of bread. A colleague in New Zealand was sitting on a beach, watching waders when he noticed this loaf of bread ‘moving’ toward him.

No, his eyes were not deceiving him. A turnstone had eaten its way right inside the discarded loaf, and as it dug deeper and more energetically into its meal, the bread was propelled forward – seemingly under its own ‘steam’.

Maybe you should keep your eyes peeled for the ruddy turnstone when you are next out and about – it might be fun.

Story and pictures ©Tony Neilson 2017

©2018 TONY NEILSON All Rights Reserved. All images are protected by Australian copyright law and cannot be downloaded or reproduced without my permission. Please contact me.

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