Grays Harbor Birds — Ruddy Turnstone

When I first moved to Grays Harbor in October of 1998, it took a while for me to get out and look at the birds to be found here. I was getting settled in my house, marveling at the quiet, losing my L.A.-based paranoias, and just plain adjusting to the slower pace of life.

When I began to notice the birds of the area, it was nearly winter, but I don’t think I even noticed the turnstones.

The first time I saw a Ruddy Turnstone out on the North Jetty was in August of 1999, and it was an interesting-looking bird, but nothing like the following spring, when this bird had transformed into a real show-stopper.

What had been a mostly grayish-black and white bird suddenly assumed the breeding colors of stark black and white, with brilliant reddish-brown “scales” on its back and bright orange legs.

It was easily picked out among the other jetty-area birds,scurrying from one place to another, turning over rocks and shells, and sorting through small piles of seaweeds. It doesn’t spend much time in the area, so I like to seek it out as a real sign of the return of spring.

More information on this bird:

Size: Length is 9.5 inches, wingspan is 21 inches, and it weighs approximately 4 ounces.

General Description: The Ruddy Turnstone (RUTU) has a compact, sturdy shape, one of the medium-bodied shorebirds, with orange legs, a short, slightly upturned, wedge-shaped bill, a white belly, boldly marked black and white facial markings that become heavy black u-shaped markings to the front of each wing. Its back is covered in rusty brown and black scale-looking feathers which open to form stripes while flying. Also seen in flight is the white at the base of the tail and the dark terminal band. The females are duller in breeding plumage than the males, their backs mottled gray-brown rather than the rufous color.

Habitat: During migration and winter, RUTU can be found in coastal areas and mudflats of sand and rocks. During migration they can also be found inland in plowed fields.

Behavior: RUTU flock in small groups, usually larger in spring than fall, and often in the company of Dunlins and Red Knots in the spring. They spend much of their time turning over objects and eating the food underneath. They can easily move rocks as big as their heads. They fly in tight groups when moving around on the shoreline, and in loose lines while migrating.

Diet: This is one bird that will eat almost anything it finds under rocks and in piles of seaweed. They will eat carrion, small crustaceans, mollusks, snails, insects, and the eggs of smaller birds.

Nesting: RUTU nest on the tundra near water and also prefer to be near gull and tern breeding colonies as they steal and eat their eggs. Their nest is a shallow depression lined with withered leaves, moss, and dried grasses. The female builds the nest, lays 4 eggs, then both parents incubate the eggs for 22 to 24 days. Soon after hatching the young follow the male to food, but both parents help tend and defend the young for a while longer. The female begins her southward migration first, leaving the male to tend the young until they can fly, usually at 19 to 21 days.

Migration Status: The RUTU is found in both the New World and Old World continents and migrates from their Arctic nesting grounds as far as the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego. They winter on the coastlines of every continent except for Antarctica.

Conservation Status: RUTU are common and widespread, thanks mostly to their remote breeding range and widespread wintering range.

When and Where to Find In Grays Harbor: The best time to find Ruddy Turnstones is in late April and into May on the outer coast, with a lesser number of migrant adults seen in mid-July to early August, and juveniles in late August to late September. Look for those adult, breeding plumaged birds right now; you can’t miss that color!