Ruddy Turnstones

They might just be the coolest shorebirds around

by: Ginger Andrews

photography by: Tom Griswold

Watching bird activity is one of the delights of the beach. As August rolls around, shorebird migration heats up, and Nantucket’s beaches are known for their seasonally-changing birds. Whether they run with waves or stalk along the shallows, they are part of the life of a natural, wild shoreline.

Knowing a little bit about the birds enhances that sense of place. To start, it helps identify what birds are present. The Ruddy Turnstone is a great one to begin with. It is a distinctive bird, easy to pick out from the crowd once you know what to look for.

Unlike so many birds, the names of which seem completely unrelated to how a bird looks in the field, Ruddy Turnstones are named for one of their most distinctive behaviors: flipping over pebbles, small rocks, shells or heaps of seaweed. They literally turn over stones in their quest for food.

Medium-sized birds, they are a good metric to use for comparison with other shorebirds. They stalk along the quiet edges of sandbars or mudflats, their attitude horizontal, waddling along like little foot- balls. Their bright-orange legs are sturdy and thick, the bones built to support their weight-lifting activity.

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The color and pattern of their plumage also stands out from other shorebirds. With small heads set off by swirls of russet, black and white, they have been compared to everything from “a slice of marbled rye bread” to “a calico cat.”