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Arenaria interpres - Ruddy Turnstone

Ruddy Turnstone image

Geographic range:

World-wide on southern coasts in the winter and in arctic regions of Canada, Europe, Asia, western Alaska and Greenland during the breeding season.

Key features:

In flight the striking rufous, black, and white pattern of the wings, back, and rump is diagnostic for this chunky and compact shorebird.

Similar species:

Arenaria melanocephala -- Black Turnstone
Calidris ptilocnemis -- Rock Sandpiper
Aphriza virgata -- Surfbird


bay (rocky shore), bay (sandy shore), exposed rocky shore, exposed sandy beaches, protected rocky shore, protected sandy beaches

Primary common name:

Ruddy Turnstone

General grouping:

Seabirds and shorebirds

ITIS code:


Geographic Range

Range Description:

The Ruddy Turnstone is a highly migratory bird, breeding in northern parts of Eurasia and northern North America in tundra regions from Alaska to Greenland. Ruddy Turnstones breeding in high-arctic Canada and Greenland winter mainly along coastal shores in Britain and Ireland and south along the Atlantic coast of southwestern Europe and northwestern Africa. Those breeding further south winter mostly in Brazil, but also along both coasts of North and Central America from Long Island, New York, and the Gulf of Mexico and central California south through the West Indies and coastal South America to Tierra del Fuego.


bay (rocky shore), bay (sandy shore), exposed rocky shore, exposed sandy beaches, protected rocky shore, protected sandy beaches

Habitat notes:

They may also be seen on the mudflats of Elkhorn Slough. They are rare here in the summer.


Relative abundance:

Uncommon. The Canadian Wildlife Service estimates the worldwide population to number 449,000 with 235,000 breeding in North America, mainly in arctic Canada.

Species Description

General description:

The Ruddy Turnstone is a fairly small (robin sized) arctic-breeding sandpiper. The sexes look alike. They are stocky with short, orange legs with unwebbed anterior toes with black nails. They have a stout, wedge-shaped, black, slightly upturned bill (2.5 cm/1 in long) that tapers to a point. In breeding plumage they have a harlequin patterned face with black and white head, throat, neck and breast (with 2 bilateral loops of black), while the upperparts are a rufous-chestnut with black-brown patches, producing a variegated russet pattern. The belly is white. It is most distinctive in flight with its white and rufous back, rump, upper tail-coverts and wingbars in contrast to the otherwise dark upperparts. The wings are long, narrow, and pointed. In this breeding plumage the male can be distinguished by pronounced black and white streaking along his crown and by his white nape, while the female is more mottled and dull with a brownish nape. Males tend to be smaller than females. Non-breeding plumage is similar but duller. Immatures have more brown rather than black.

Distinctive features:

The Ruddy Turnstone is a chunky, compact sandpiper, with short orange legs, a pointed, slightly up turned black bill, and a distinctive calico pattern of rufous, black and white on the wings, back, tail and head (seen best in flight). Found on rocky shores, beaches and mudflats. Uses bill to flip over rocks and debris in search of food.


Length: 21-26 cm (8.27-10.24) Wingspan: 50-57 cm (19.69-22.44) Weight: 84-190g (2.96-6.69 oz)

Natural History

General natural history:

The Ruddy Turnstone is one of the most northerly breeding species of shorebirds. Its migratory movements and winter distribution on southern seacoasts throughout the world are well known, but its summer activities on breeding grounds are poorly known. It is known that they breed in tundra regions of North America from Alaska to Greenland. They are opportunistic feeders, feeding on rocky and sandy beaches, turning over rocks, seaweeds, shells, etc. with their strong bill or using their bills to dig for food. On their breeding grounds, where they are monogamous and territorial, they feed mostly on dipteran insects (flies). In summer their diet is more diverse. They have high site and mate fidelity, and occupy dry, open tundra flats and slopes that are near ponds, lakes, and streams. They have been described as “noisy”. Their flight call is a relatively low and mellow rattle. They also sound a single, sharp klew or a hard, nasal gaerrt. If threatened they make a long, low rattle k-k-k-k-k-k-k-k or kitititit and if distressed will sound a high pitched i i i. Pri pri pri calls are used to call their young. They are social when not breeding and form small groups of tens to many thousands, often mixing with other species of shorebirds. However they are aggressive and territorial when competing for food. They can fly rapidly for long distances, more than 1000 km per day, across oceans and hemispheres to reach breeding or wintering grounds. They use calls and visual displays when communicating with each other. They display on the ground and in the air to attract mates.


Most predation on Ruddy Turnstones is on eggs and hatchlings. Predators include long-tailed jaegers (Stercorarius longicaudus), parasitic jaegers (Stercorarius paraciticus), glaucous gulls (Larus hyperboreus), common ravens (Corvus corax), arctic foxes (Vulpes lagopus), red foxes (Vulpes vulpes), Eurasian sparrow-hawks (Accipiter nisus), peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus), merlins (Falco columbarius), and owls (Strigiformes). If collared lemmings’ numbers are low, predators will take more turnstones. Adults may be preyed upon by birds of prey like Eurasian sparrow-hawks and owls.


On the breeding grounds the Ruddy Turnstone eats mainly insects, especially midges and their larvae. They also take spiders, beetles, bees, wasps, and berries. During migration and in the winter they are opportunistic scavengers, eating crustaceans (especially amphipods, copepods, decapods, isopods, etc.), mollusks (limpets, periwinkles, mussels, cockles, etc.), annelids, echinoderms, and other marine invertebrates. They will also take small fish, eggs (especially tern eggs and horseshoe crab eggs, for which they may have to dig down in the sand up to 2 inches, and also eggs of the House Sparrow), insects that can be found associated with seaweed, spiders, carrion, non-insect arthropods, terrestrial worms, aquatic and marine worms, bivalves, barnacles, human garbage, and low-growing fruit.

Feeding behavior


Feeding behavior notes:

An opportunistic feeder, the Ruddy Turnstone feeds on rocky and sandy beaches during winter and migration, by turning over rocks, pebbles, algae, shells, and other items with its stout, strong, and slightly upturned upper mandible, also used to probe, jab, and dig for food in winter and summer. They are skilled at opening bivalves and barnacles. On breeding grounds flies and their larvae are caught by probing and jabbing. After eggs hatch, adults and chicks forage in wet habitats along edges of streams, ponds, and lakes, usually in areas where recently emerged aquatic insects occur in large numbers. Family movements correspond with availibility of soft-bodied, immobile, insect prey. They are territorial and aggessive against other shorebirds competing for food.

March - May


After wintering along coasts of the United States, South America, and every continent except Antarctica, Ruddy Turnstones begin their northward migration to their circumpolar breeding grounds as early as March or as late as May. Their spring movement is probably regulated by physiological condition, fat deposition, and day length, with weather conditions determining their departure and rate of movement to the north. The British Antarctic Survey reports they can cover 27,000 kilometers flying from Australia to the Arctic and back. They fly rapidly and have recently been tracked flying from Australia to Taiwan in six days. Another Ruddy completed almost 4,000 miles in four days. Average speed of flight is over 30 mph, with speeds up to 65 mph with tail winds. The Ruddy Turnstone is a bird of both the Old and New Worlds. They travel from their arctic nesting grounds to coastal wintering grounds in the United States to South America and along coastlines of every continent except Antarctica. They migrate through and winter in the MBNMS area along rocky coasts, most often seen in mixed flocks of other shore birds, especially Black Turnstones.

May - September


The world breeding range of Ruddy Turnstones is complicated and has been divided into 5 populations, with 3 in North America: high-arctic Canadian, western Alaska and east Siberia, and low-arctic of northeast Alaska. Each population winters in different areas: Ireland and Iberia, Asia and Australia, and Massachusetts to South America, respectively. They arrive on breeding grounds from late May to early June. They prefer open ground in wet tundra areas with sparse vegetation or dry rocky ridges close to the sea. The nests are sometimes well concealed among rocks or under shrubs. They return to the same nest site and same partner. The courtship rituals between a male and a female include ground and aerial displays. The female builds the nest, a shallow depression with a scant lining of leaves, moss, grass, or seaweed. They mate and begin to lay olive-buff/olive-green eggs (1.6 in. in length), marked with brown and black speckles, within 7 to 10 days of their arrival. The degree of snow melt dictates when nesting can begin. Both parents have brood patches and incubate the eggs (usually 4) for 22 to 24 days. However the female does most of the incubation while the male serves as a sentinel-guard to detect predators. The eggs hatch rapidly and synchronously from early to mid-July. The chicks are able to leave the nest within 24 hours after the last egg hatches. The males are pugnacious at the nest, patroling the nesting territory and warning the female if a predator is near. The hatchlings are warned to freeze by the female and then she will sneak away from the nest as both parents try to distract the predator away from the nest by pretending to have a broken wing. The young are precocial, downy, and follow the male to food. Adults and chicks forage in wet habitats along edges of streams, ponds, and lakes, usually in areas where recently emerged aquatic insects occur in large numbers. Family movements correspond with availibility of soft-bodied, immobile, insect prey. The chicks feed themselves, but both parents help protect and tend the young. If the first brood fails the pair do not produced a second one. The female usually departs first, within 2 weeks of the eggs hatching, leaving the male to watch over the young until then can fly, typically in 19 to 21 days, and usually by early August, when they become independent of their male parent. Males depart next and finally the fledglings, accompanied by one or two adult males, generally leave by mid-August, completing the breeding cycle.

July - September


Ruddy Turnstones depart their breeding grounds in late July through September, depending on the latitude of the breeding grounds. They move rapidly southward with differential timing by sex. Failed breeders leave first, followed by females midway through the chick-rearing period, with most males departing once the chicks have fledged. Fledglings depart last, usually in small flocks accompanied by 1 or 2 adult males. Southward movement and rate and length of stay at stopover foraging sites is complex and probably related to food availability and fat accumulation, with some evidence of juveniles being less capable of long nonstop movements. Both high- and low-arctic populations show site fidelity to wintering grounds. On our west coast they are often seen with Black Turnstones and Surfbirds along rocky shores, and with Sanderlings, Dunlins, and Red Knots on beaches and mudflats. In marshy areas they may mingle with Pectoral Sandpipers.

August - March


After breeding season and the southward migration it is time to feed and add fat and become physiologically fit. North American Ruddy Turnstones that migrate through Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary spend their winters mostly on rocky and sandy beaches in Central and South America, mostly Peru and Ecuador. However their main migratory route is along the Atlantic coast. Most immatures remain at their wintering grounds during their first full summer and molt early, which is apparently related to their fat condition in spring.

Listing Status:

Ruddy Turnstones are not considered threatened because of their large geographic range and their large numbers. They are protected under the U.S. Migratory Bird Act. The IUCN lists it as a species of Least Concern. However world wide they do face destruction and contamination of coastal habitats. They rely on coastal areas to provide prey as they migrate. Globally they are threatened by human activity at several of their wintering locations. Industrial and recreational activity is contributing to habitat loss.
Click on an image below to view a larger version in the SIMoN Photo Library. You will also be able to view important information on each photo such as photographer, date, caption and more.
Ehrlich, P., D.S. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The Birders Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds. Simon & Schuster Inc., New York. 785 p.
NOAA. 1994. Beached marine birds and mammals of the North American West Coast: a revised guide to their identification. NOAA Sanctuaries and Reserves Division, U.S. Department of Commerce
Roberson, D. 2002. Monterey Birds 2nd edition. Monterey Peninsula Audubon Society, Carmel, CA. 536 p.
Sibley, D.A. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Bird. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 545 p.
Accessed 08/30/2010 for Ruddy Turnstone
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Accessed 08/30/2010 for Ruddy Turnstone