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A photo of a Black Turnstone (Arenaria melanocephala)
Black Turnstone

Black Turnstone

Arenaria melanocephala

The Black Turnstone, Arenaria melanocephala, presents a striking black and white plumage. Adults in breeding attire boast a black head and breast, punctuated by a white spot between the eye and bill, and a white stripe above the eye. Their upperparts are a dusky blackish-brown, with pale fringes on the wing-coverts and scapulars. The belly and vent are pure white, and in flight, they reveal a white wingbar, shoulder patch, and a white tail with a distinctive black band.

Identification Tips

This small wading bird measures 22–25 centimeters in length and tips the scales at 100–170 grams. Its bill, 20–27 millimeters long, is black and slightly upturned. The legs and feet are a dark brown with a hint of red. Winter plumage sees the head and breast turn a dark brown with minimal white, while juveniles resemble winter adults but are browner with buff fringes and a grey-brown tail tip.

Habitat

During the breeding season, the Black Turnstone favors wet meadows rich with sedges. In winter, it is commonly found along rocky coastlines but also frequents beaches, mudflats, and man-made structures such as jetties and breakwaters.

Distribution

Breeding occurs in western Alaska, from the Alaska Peninsula to Point Hope, with a concentration in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. In winter, they migrate to the Pacific coast of North America, ranging from southern Alaska to northwest Mexico. Vagrants have been spotted as far afield as the Galápagos Islands.

Behaviour

The Black Turnstone is known for its methodical feeding technique, flipping over stones and other debris to uncover hidden invertebrates. It is a creature of habit, often returning to the same territory and reuniting with the same mate year after year.

Song & Calls

A variety of calls can be heard from this species, including a distinctive rattling trill and a loud, screeching alarm. Males perform an aerial display accompanied by staccato notes, and on the ground, they emit chirruping trills.

Breeding

Nesting begins from early May to early June, with males arriving first to establish territories. The nest is a simple scrape, often concealed among vegetation. Typically, four olive or greenish eggs with darker spots are laid, incubated by both parents for 21–24 days. The precocial chicks are quick to fend for themselves and achieve flight within 25–34 days.

Similar Species

The Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres) is the closest relative, distinguishable by its rufous-brown upperparts and more extensive white on the head and breast in breeding plumage. It also has brighter orange legs and narrower wings.

Diet and Feeding

The Black Turnstone's diet consists mainly of invertebrates, with a preference for crustaceans and mollusks in winter and insects during the breeding season. It also consumes seeds, eggs, and carrion.

Conservation Status

The IUCN Red List classifies the Black Turnstone as Least Concern, with an estimated global population of 95,000 individuals, about 80,000 of which are found in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

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Black Turnstone Fun Facts

Did you know?
As their name suggests, Black Turnstones, use their bills to turn over stones to find food.

Black Turnstones on Birda

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