As colder weather arrives at the Jersey Shore, so do a number of migratory birds abandoning the deep freeze of the arctic in favor of our relatively mild coastline.
One such species is the ruddy turnstone, a cheerful-looking little bird often seen along rocky jetties.
What it is:
The ruddy turnstone is a small, slightly stocky shorebird, about 6 to 8 inches long. In the winter, when we usually see it, its wings and head have a reddish-brown “tortoiseshell” appearance, and its underside is bright white. In summer, males sport striking black markings on their heads and breasts.
But the birds are always recognizable by their bright orange legs, and by the flashes of white plumage visible on the back, rump and wings when they take flight.
Turnstones are opportunistic feeders, and will eat almost anything. Aquatic invertebrates are their favorite food, but they’ll also snack on other birds’ eggs, carrion and even human garbage.
The bird gets its name from its habit of using its wedge-shaped beak to flip pebbles on beaches in search of food. It hunts in the same way on seaweed-covered jetties, probing and flicking through seaweed and debris.
Like a lot of our winter shorebirds, turnstones migrate long distances over the course of a year. They’re arctic nesters, breeding in the northern tundras of North America, Europe and Asia. Cooler weather sends them south to rocky coasts and mudflats all over the world.
Where to find it:
Along the Jersey Shore, your best bet for spotting a turnstone in the late fall and winter is to head to a jetty. They can often be found hopping among the rocks in small groups in a constant search for food.
In spring, flocks that flew further south will come through the area again, traveling with other shore birds, including red knots. Ruddy turnstones can often be seen amid vast numbers of red knots feeding on horseshoe crab eggs in the Delaware Bay and along our shores.
Ruddy turnstones are fun birds to watch and photograph. They tend to be bolder than a lot of their shorebird cousins, who usually take flight en masse if they see you make any sudden moves.
Ruddies will tolerate your approach, to an extent, and are usually too busy greedily poking for food to be bothered by your presence, so you can enjoy their scrambling antics at close range.