From northern Alaska to southern Baja, the Black Turnstone occupies most of the Pacific Coast during part of each year. Migrating by day and frequently associating with Surfbirds, Black Turnstones typically return to the same wintering areas each year.
Adult Black Turnstones have fairly high annual survivorship, and an estimated lifespan of 4-8 years, but flooding of nest sites and predation by a variety of avian and mammalian predators reduces the number of young produced each year. The Exxon Vadez oil spill in Alaska affected important habitat for Black Turnstones.
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Description of the Black Turnstone
The Black Turnstone is a medium size, chunky shorebird with mostly black upperparts and breast, a white belly, and dark, reddish-brown legs. Length: 9 in. Wingspan: 21 in.
Same as male.
Seasonal change in appearance
White lore spot and eyebrow of breeding birds become dark in the winter.
Similar to adults but more brownish.
Mollusks, barnacles, and insects.
Forages by walking throughout coastal rocks.
Breeds in Alaska and winters along the west coast of North America. Populations appear to be declining.
Bent Life History
Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the Black Turnstone.
The shape of a bird’s wing is often an indication of its habits and behavior. Fast flying birds have long, pointed wings. Soaring birds have long, broad wings. Different songbirds will have a slightly different wing shape. Some species look so much alike (Empidonax flycatchers) that scientists sometimes use the length of specific feathers to confirm a species’ identification.
Wing images from the University of Puget Sound, Slater Museum of Natural History
The mostly black plumage of the Black Turnstone gives it excellent camouflage against the dark shoreline rocks it inhabits.
Black Turnstones are loud, aggressive defenders of their nesting territories.
Screaming rattles are often given.
Ruddy Turnstones have extensive reddish in the wings and upperparts.
Surfbirds are grayer and have yellowish legs.
The nest is a grass-lined depression on the ground.
Color: Greenish with darker markings.
Incubation and fledging:
– Young hatch at 22-24 days.
– Young fledge (leave the nest) soon after hatching, but remain with the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the Black Turnstone
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Black Turnstone – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
ARENARIA MELANOCEPHALA (Vigors)
The black turnstone replaces to a large extent on the Pacific coast our well-known ruddy turnstone; both species are found there on migrations and in winter, but the black is the commoner on that coast, to which it is restricted. It is a characteristic bird of the barnacle-covered reefs and rocky shores, being more often seen on the outlying islands and ledges than on the mainland. There it lives at the water’s edge, seeking its food within reach of the waves and often drenched with ocean spray. As it stands motionless it is almost invisible in its coat of dark brown and might easily be mistaken for a knob of rock or a bunch of seaweed; but when startled into flight its conspicuous pattern of black and white flashes out a distinctive mark of recognition.
Spring: The black turnstone starts on its northward migration from the coast of California early in April. Much of the flight is over the ocean, as the following observation by Austin H. Clark (1910) shows:
On the first day out of San Francisco, May 4, we saw several small flocks of these birds on their way north; each succeeding day they became more abundant until on the afternoon of May 8 we saw them by thousands, in flocks of from 10 or 20 to several hundred. At one time, about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, the whole sea appeared dotted with white, so abundant were they. All the birds noticed were headed up the coast, going the same direction as we.
In the mornings these birds were comparatively rare; they began to appear about 11 o’clock, and increased in numbers ontil about 2, when they were very abundant; shortly after S there was a falling off until by half past 4 few, if any, were to be seen. This was true every day we were at sea on the voyage from San Francisco to Puget Sound. Whether they spent the night and early morning on the neighboring shores or resting on the water I am unable to say; but all we saw were on the wing; possibly there were other shore birds In these multitudes, but all which came near the ship were of this species.
Lucien M. Turner (1886) says that this is one of the earliest arrivals at St. Michael. His earliest date is May 13. “It arrives with the earlier geese, and for the frrst few weeks frequents the edges of the low ponds, which are the first to be freed from the ice in spring. After the sea ice has left the shores it repairs to the rocky beach and seeks its food among the stones and seaweeds.” H. B. Conover says, in his notes from Hooper Bay: “The first of these birds were noted on May 16, when two were taken as they flew by a small snow-water pond on the tundra. Two days later this species was very common. Next to the western sandpiper it was probably the commonest, as well as the noisiest, wader nesting on the tundra.”
Courtship: Herbert W. Brandt, who has studied this species on its breeding grounds at Hooper Bay, Alaska, says in his notes:
The black turnstones, like many of the other shore birds during the mating season, spend considerable time chasing each other about. The female seems to say to the male, “catch me if you can,” and then dashes off with such speed that the pursuer has difficulty In following her, and she usually returns to the same spot from which her zigzag flight began. Often the male will mount high into the air alone, until completely out of sight, and then will produce with his wing or tail feathers, which of the two I have not been able to determine, the same strange zum-ztsm-rum noise as made by the Wilson snipe. Before the nesting season this feather music could be heard on the flats at any time, and it deceived me at first, as I mistook it for that of the snipe. Later, however, as soon as the nesting duties began, it seemed to cease; and In this respect, the black turnstone differs from the Wilson snipe, because the feather music of the latter is continued throughout the incubation period.
Nesting: The same observer describes the nesting habits as follows:
The fantastic shaped shore lines of the lowland brackish ponds furnish ideal homesites for the vivacious black turastono as It usually chooses, upon which to nest, a little projecting grass-covered point or islet. Quite near the water’s edge the bird will hollow a depression in the flattened dead grass and here, often upon the almost bare mud with the eternal ice strata only a few inches beneath, the hardy mother will successfully bring forth a brood. Little effort is made to build a home and the only material therein is the grass that previously grew on or about the site and is flattened down into the basin of the nest. At times there is almost no lining beneath the olive-hued eggs and they are then so besmeared that they appear to have been deliberately rolled In the mud. Occasionally, however, the bird will nest some distance away from the water on a dry site, but always the mode of construction is the same. The range of measurements of 27 nests is: diameter of basin 3M~ to 4½ inches and depth 1 to 2′,4 inches. The undecked nests are easy to find If bordering the pools, provided their general location is known, but the birds keep up such a continual clamor that it is difficult to guess their chosen area. In favored places they breed in such close proximity to one another that they appear to colonize. In no case like the other Charadriidae did I observe these birds about the nest to feign lameness or distress. Incubation spots were found on both of the parents.
Eggs: I can not do better than to quote Mr. Brandt’s description of the eggs, as follows:
The eggs of the black turnstone, invariably four to the nest, are aubpyrlform to ovate pyriform in shape, and unlike the glossy egg of the ruddy turnatone, reflect but little luster. Due to the flatness of the nest, the eggs, while they usually rest points together, do not stand as erect while being brooded as eggs of the sandpipers. The texture of the surface is smooth and the eggs are not at all fragile. The eggs of the present species are unique among the eggs of the shore birds at Hooper Bay in that the ground color, the surface markings and the underlying spots are In the same category of colors which are the olive hues, but each is a different shade. The olive of the ground color is tinged with yellowish; the surface markings are much darker, favoring the browns, while the feeble underlying spots are of a shade between the two. In consequence, the spots while fairly distinctive and seldom confluent, are not prominent, the entire egg being of an olive-like cast. The common type of ground color is “light yellowish olive” to “yellowish olive,” but “huffy olive~’ is not rare and some are even “Vetiver green.” The small end is often several shades lighter than the rest of the egg, but in a large series of specimens the ground color Is very similar. The surface markings are very constant in color, ranging from “light yellowish olive” to “olive.” These spots are angular and fantastical and often inclined to he streaked or faintly smeared and are not at all bold. They are numerous, often almost obliterating the ground color, and are densest about the larger end. The underlying spots are very shadowy and often almost invisible and are shades of “olive gray.” On the large end of every egg there are scattered additional markings of brownish black in the form of small spots and pen-like streaks. In color and style of markings the eggs of the black turnstone, when fresh, resemble a common olive type of the American crow, but even these greenish colors fade considerably in time.
The measurements of 130 eggs average 40.9 by 28.8 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 46 by 29.5, 41 by 30.5, 38 by 28, and 40.7 by 27.8 millimeters.
Young: Mr. Conover says, in his notes, that “both male and female take care of the young.” He obtained some data which seems to show that the eggs hatch in from 21 to 22 days. A nest was found on May 31 with four fresh eggs; in the evening of June 21 this nest contained three young, already dry, and one pipped egg; the next morning the last egg had hatched. Another nest was found on May 31 with three eggs; the next day there were four eggs; at noon on June 22 the eggs had not hatched; but at 4 p. m. the next day the nest was empty and the young had disappeared from the vicinity.
Mr. Brandt says in his notes:
We enjoyed the pleasure of seeing the downy young for the first time on June 21, and were greatly interested in them, as they had not been described or figured. They are born from the egg 21 days after incubation begins, and the mottled chick, like other shore birds, leaves its nest at once. The downy young have a remarkably protective coloration, and, furthermore, are distiagnishahie from any of their relatives.
Dr. E. W. Nelson (1887) says that: when the young are able to take wing in July they leave the flats, to a great extent, aad frequent the seacoast, where they keep In small straggling parties searching for food along the tide line.
Plumages: 1 have never seen a young black turnstone in natal down, but Mr. Conover describes it very well, as follows: Above mottled black and “cream buff,” the black strongly predominating. Line from base of bill extending over and to the center of the eye “cream buff.” Distinct loral streak of black from base of bill to eye. (Some specimens also have below this loral stripe a black spot at base of lower mandible). Lower breast, abdomen and a very small area on chin clear white. Upper throat “cream buff.” Neck and upper breast mixed black and “cream buff,” but without distinct mottling. Bill dark horn, iris brown, legs and feet light horn with fleshy tint. Compared with absolutely identified newly batched chicks of A. i. morinella, downy young of this species have a much darker appearance. On the upper parts the huffy colors are more in the form of specklings, while In morindila. these colors are more blotch-like. Melanocephala also has a very distinct dark band across the chest, while in the other species this band Is very faintly indicated.
In fresh juvenal plumage, in July, the head, neck, chest, back, scapulars and wing coverts are dull, blackish brown, or “sepia,” with an olive gloss; the feathers of the mantle are narrowly edged with “pinkish buff”; the scapulars are more broadly edged with the same; the median wing coverts are tipped and their white edges are tinged with the same; and the tail feathers are tipped or tinged with the same color. These buffy edgings have mostly worn away or faded out to dull white before the birds migrate. Probably a partial postjuvenal molt in the fall produces a first winter plumage, which is like the adult, except that some of the juvenal wing coverts and a few scapulars are retained. A first nuptial plumage appears in a young bird collected on March 17, which is beginning to acquire the white spots of the nuptial plumage on the head and breast, but still has some old, worn, juvenal scapulars and wing coverts. The young bird evidently acquires the adult winter plumage at the first postnuptial molt the following summer. Adults have a partial prenuptial molt of the body plumage in March and April and a complete postnuptial molt in August and September. The adult nuptial plumage is characterized by the white lores, the small white spots on the forehead, and the larger white spots on the sides of the head, neck and chest; otherwise it is like the winter plumage, though the latter is somewhat lighter brown on the throat and chest.
Food: The food of the black turnstone has evidently not been carefully analyzed, but it apparently consists of small marine animals such as barnacles, slugs, small mollusks, and crustaceans, such as are eaten by surf birds and other turnstones. Grinnell, Bryant, and Storer (1918) mentioned one, taken in Alaska in May, that had been feeding on heath berries. They quote Bradford Torrey (1913), as to the method of feeding, as follows:
They were feeding In three ways. Sometimes they followed the receding breaker, gleaning from the surface, as it seemed, such edibles as It had washed In. Mostly, however, they busied themselves upon the wet sand just above the last reach of the falling tide.
Ouce they found a place where the shrimps or prawns were evidently more plentiful than elsewhere, and it was amusing to see how eagerly they worked, each determined to get Its full share of the plunder. Thrusting their short, stout bills into the sand, they drew out their squirming prey, dropped it on the sand, picked it up and shook it, and dropped it again, till finally they had it In condition for swallowing. These manoenvers they repeated, all in desperate competitive haste, till the beach within a circle of a few feet in circumference was thickly dotted with minute hillocks of sand, such as I should never have attributed to the work of any bird, had it not been done before my eyes. Then the supply seemed to be exhausted, and they moved on In search of another bonanza. At other times they resorted to patches of seaweed lying here and there a little higher on the beach, turning them bottom side up, or brushing them aside, to feast on such small game as had taken shelter underneath. Their action here was like that of a dog when he buries a bone by pushing the earth over It with his nose. They lo~vered their heads, and with more or less effort according to circumstances accomplished their purpose. If the obstacle proved too heavy to be moved in this manner, they drew back a little and made a run at It as men do in using a battering-ram. More than once I saw them gaining the needed momentum by this means. They quarreled now and then over the business, and once two of them faced each other, bill to bill, like gamecocks: a most unusual proceeding among waders, firing oIl little fusilades of exclamations meanwhile. The turastones’ disagreements were of the briefest, however, slight ebullitions of temper rather than any actual belligerency.
Behavior: S. F. IRathbun has sent me the following notes on the behavior of this species:
The tide was just turning from flood, the time being about S p. m. On the rocks of the jetty whose top at the edge of the beach was just above the waters surface and at times submerged by incoming waves, was a small flock of black turastones numbering about 30. At first the birds would not allow a close approach but as we slowly neared them would take wing and, then coming together In close formation, circle in unison, rising and falling, close to the water’s surface to soon return and alight on the tops of the nearly submerged rocks. It was a beautiful sight to see them in flight as then the black and white of their plumage was strongly In contrast. After a short time the birds allowed a much closer approach for on one occasion we stood within 20 feet of the flock. As the tide receded much more of the surface of the rocks became exposed, although at times the waves dashed completely over them, and whenever this occurred it forced the turastones to take wing. Sometimes one of the birds would be caught by an incoming wave and would then emerge In flight from the water, scattering the spray in all directions. But the rapid recession of the tide soon gave plenty of ground to search for food and In this all the birds became busily engaged. Some of the birds while so doing would climb the very abrupt surface of the rocks, clinging to the moss, which adhered, whIle examining with their bills the crevices of the rocks and also the moss for crustaceans and minute molluscs. At times one or more would rest on the side of a rock In perfect repose and evidence that a few were paired was seen by the fact that two often persisted in remaining In company.
One thing proved somewhat amusing to us, that although during the time the birds had been feeding they were repeatedly drenched by spray from the waves striking the rocks, when they finally ceased to feed a few at odd times would drop into the shallow water at the base of the rocks to hathe by dashing It over themselves, following which they would dabble about.
Mr. Brandt says in his notes:
Among the shore birds breeding along the coast of Bering Sea there is none more interesting and fascinating than this black and white turastone. When the mud about the edges of the ponds and tidal slougbs begins to soften, and the accumulated snow water starts to move, this bird appears enlivening the bleak, cheerless marshes with its loud-toned cries and butterfly-like appearance. In the lowland area it is the comn,onest shore bird, and its contrastive black and white figure is doubly conspicuous, because it resents intrusion of its haunts and sallies forth to meet the approaching stranger; whereas the rest of the shore-bird tribe found there either skulk away or exhibit indifference. As the Pacific godwit is the self-appointed guardian of the upland tundra, so the black turastone patrols the lowlands, often to the dismay of the hunter or the irritation of the ornithologist. In spite of Its chunky body and comparatively short wings, it is gifted with elegance and swiftness of flight. It does not, like the phalarope, afford an inviting target for the young native hunters, because not only does it scold on the wing, but it also moves so nervously while on the ground that it is not quiet there even for a fraction of a second. No doubt the hunting jaegers consider it the pest of the fiats, for while passing through Its domain, these freebooters are usually being annoyingly followed by one or more of these fiery and courageous defenders.
Mr. Turner (1886) says that:
The sea-otter hunters, both native and white, detest this bird, as It frequents the places most resorted to by marine mammals and is certain to give alarm to the otter or seal which the hunter is endeavoring to approach.
Voice: Doctor Nelson (1887) says: “It has a habit of circling around the intruder, during the nesting season, with a fine, clear, peeping cry like the syllables wed, wed too-weet, as it moves restlessly about. When disturbed in the vicinity of its nest it also has a sharp peet, west, weet, very similar to the well known note of the spotted sandpiper.” Mr. Turner (1886) says that when alarmed and “taking flight they utter a rattling scream” which is quite startling.
Field marks: When standing the black turnstone may be recognized by its uniformly dark head, neck, and chest, above a white belly; it lacks the whitp throat of the turnstone, and its upper parts appear all dark. But when flying it shows white patches quite similar to those of the turustone, a patch in the center of the back, the base of the tail, a stripe in the scapulars and a broad band across the wings; there is rather more white in the wing than in the turngtone and the black tips extend along only the outer half of the wing; the surf bird has a much narrower white stripe in the wing.
Fall: Doctor Nelson (1887) says, of the departure of these birds from Alaska: “In autumn they move gradually to the southward, until by the last of August they become rarer, and during the first half of September all have gone with the exception of an occasional straggler found along the seashore.” The migration extends down the coast as far as Lower California.
Winter: Carl Lien regards them as common winter residents on Destruction Island, off the coast of Washington. He says, in his notes that they “begin to arrive about July 26 and leave in the spring the first week in May. They confine themselves entirely to the reefs and are very sociable, keeping up a continual chatter. The Aleutian sandpiper and a surf bird or two will nearly always be found among them. About 75 or 100 birds winter here.”
A. B. Howell (1917), referring to the islands off the coast of southern California, says that “this is by far the most abundant shore bird on the islands, much more so than on the mainland, occurring in flocks of as many as 30 individuals, and frequenting the rockiest shores.”
Range: Paciflc coast of North America, casual in northeastern Siberia.
Breeding range: So far as known, the black turnstone breeds only on the Alaskan coast, the breeding range appearing to extend from Chichagof Island on the south, north to probably Montague Island, Ugashik, Nushagak, looper Bay, the Yukon Valley, St. Michael, Cape Prince of Wales, and probably the Kobuk River. At this season it also has been detected on Wrangel Island, and Herald Island (Nelson) but is not known to breed, while nonbreeders have been noted south on the coast at British Columbia, Skidegate; Oregon, Yaquina Bay; California, Farallon Islands, Monterey Bay, Point Pinos, and San Miguel Island; and Lower California, Los Coronados Islands.
Winter range: The winter range of the black 1~urnstone extends north nearly to the breeding grounds and but little south of the southern limit of the nonbreeders. They have been noted in winter north rarely to Alaska (Craig and Howkan). Also in southern British Columbia (Victoria); Washington (Bellingham Bay, Smith Island, Dungeness, and Clallam Bay); Oregon (Yaquina Bay and Netarts Bay); California (Eureka, Tomales Bay, San Francisco, Monterey, San Miguel Island, Santa Cruz Island, San Pedro Bay, Santa Catalina Island, San Clemente Island, and San Diego County); and lower California (San Quintin Bay, probably San Geronimo Island, Magdalena Bay, and Santa Margarita Island).
Migration: Because of the presence of individuals throughout the year in practically the entire range of the ~pecies, migration data are not sigmficant.
The following dates of spring arrival are, however, available: Alaska, Admiralty Island, April 17; Juneau, April 29; Forrester Island, May 6; Bethel, May 12; Craig, May 15; and Nulato, May 16. Dates of fall departure from Alaska are Nushagak, September 22; Homer, September 26; St. Lazaria Island, September 30; and Wrangel, November 4.
Casual records: On August 15, 1912, a flock of 20 was observed at Chaun Bay, northeastern Siberia (Thayer and Bangs). A specimen in the collection of the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences ~vas piesumed to have been obtained in India, but the occurrence has been challenged (Hartert) on t.he basis that proof is lacking that the specimen was actually there collected. The record accordingly is eliminated for lack of evidence.
Egg dates: Alaska: 96 records, May 28 to July 5; 48 records, May 31 to June 1.