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Black Turnstone

November 15, 2023

The Black Turnstone (Arenaria melanocephala) is a fascinating shorebird with distinctive features and behaviors that set it apart from other wading birds. In this extensive educational blog, we will explore various aspects of the Black Turnstone, including its size and shape, color pattern, behavior, habitat, interesting facts, ecosystem services, and the importance of its conservation. Join us as we delve into the captivating world of this unique bird species.


Size and Shape

The Black Turnstone is a medium-sized shorebird, measuring approximately 9-10 inches in length, with a wingspan of around 21-23 inches. Its stocky build and relatively short legs give it a distinctive appearance among other wading birds. The Black Turnstone has a sturdy, slightly upturned bill, which is well-suited for its foraging behavior. This specialized bill allows it to flip over stones and debris to find food beneath. Its wings are pointed and relatively long, which provide it with agility and speed during flight. When in flight, the Black Turnstone has a fast, direct flight pattern, making it difficult for predators to catch.

The tail of the Black Turnstone is short and squared, with white outer tail feathers that are visible when the bird is in flight. This characteristic can help birdwatchers identify the species from a distance. The legs of the Black Turnstone are short but strong, allowing it to navigate rocky shorelines and tidal zones with ease. Its feet are equipped with partially webbed toes, which help the bird maintain its balance on slippery surfaces.


Color Pattern

The Black Turnstone is named for its predominantly black plumage, which serves as excellent camouflage on the rocky shorelines it inhabits. The bird's dark coloration helps it blend in with its surroundings, making it difficult for predators to spot.During the breeding season, the Black Turnstone's plumage becomes more distinct, with a black head, neck, and breast, contrasting sharply with its white belly and bold white wing patches. In non-breeding plumage, the Black Turnstone's feathers are more muted, with a mottled gray and brown appearance. The white wing patches are still visible, but less pronounced than in breeding plumage.

The Black Turnstone's bill and legs are dark, adding to its overall dark and well-camouflaged appearance. Its dark eye stands out against its black head, giving it an intense gaze. Juvenile Black Turnstones have a similar color pattern to adults in non-breeding plumage but are generally paler, with more extensive brownish-gray feather edgings.



The Black Turnstone is known for its unique foraging behavior, using its specialized bill to flip over stones and debris in search of food. This behavior gives the bird its name and sets it apart from other shorebird species. When foraging, Black Turnstones are often found in small groups or mixed-species flocks. They are social birds that communicate with each other using a variety of calls, including sharp, high-pitched notes and softer, more melodic calls. The Black Turnstone is a migratory bird, with populations breeding in Alaska and northwestern Canada and wintering along the Pacific coast from southern Alaska to Baja California.

During the breeding season, male Black Turnstones establish territories and perform aerial displays to attract mates. Once paired, both parents share the responsibilities of incubating eggs and caring for the chicks. Black Turnstones are known for their agility and speed in flight, which helps them avoid predators such as falcons and hawks. They often take to the air in tight, synchronized flocks, making it difficult for predators to single out individual birds.



The preferred breeding habitat of the Black Turnstone is the tundra and rocky shorelines of Alaska and northwestern Canada. The birds seek out areas with a mix of vegetation and exposed rocks for nesting. During migration, Black Turnstones can be found along rocky coasts, jetties, breakwaters, and sandy beaches. They often congregate in small flocks or mix with other shorebird species as they search for food. In the winter months, Black Turnstones inhabit the rocky shorelines and coastal estuaries of the Pacific coast from southern Alaska to Baja California. They are particularly attracted to areas with abundant marine invertebrates, their primary food source.

The Black Turnstone's habitat preferences make it particularly vulnerable to coastal development and human disturbance, which can disrupt feeding and nesting activities. Conservation efforts aimed at preserving the Black Turnstone's habitat are crucial to ensure the long-term survival of this unique shorebird species.



  1. The Black Turnstone has a unique "turnstile" foraging technique, using its specialized bill to flip over stones and debris to find hidden prey.
  2. Despite its short legs, the Black Turnstone is an excellent swimmer and can even dive underwater to escape predators.
  3. The Black Turnstone is known to engage in a behavior called "kleptoparasitism," stealing food from other birds, particularly during the non-breeding season.
  4. Black Turnstones are known to live up to 15 years in the wild, a relatively long lifespan for a shorebird species.
  5. Due to their relatively small breeding range and specific habitat preferences, Black Turnstones are considered a "species of high conservation concern" by the American Bird Conservancy.


Ecosystem Services

As predators of marine invertebrates, Black Turnstones play a vital role in controlling the population of these organisms, ensuring a balanced ecosystem. The presence of Black Turnstones can serve as an indicator of a healthy shoreline ecosystem, as they rely on pristine habitats for feeding and nesting. Black Turnstones contribute to nutrient cycling by consuming invertebrates and releasing nutrients back into the environment through their waste.

Their unique foraging behavior can help maintain the diversity of shoreline habitats by preventing the overgrowth of algae and other organisms on rocks and other substrates. As a migratory species, Black Turnstones also play a role in connecting ecosystems along their migration route, spreading seeds and other materials that contribute to the overall health and diversity of coastal ecosystems.



The Black Turnstone is a unique and fascinating shorebird species that captivates birdwatchers and scientists alike with its distinct appearance, specialized foraging behavior, and captivating life history. By understanding the Black Turnstone's ecology, habitat preferences, and conservation needs, we can take steps to ensure the long-term survival of this remarkable bird. With ongoing efforts to protect its coastal habitats and minimize human disturbances, the Black Turnstone can continue to thrive and enrich the world's shoreline ecosystems.