Birds - Turnstone
( Originally Published 1904 )
Called also:—BRANT BIRD ; CALICO BACK ; CHECKERED SNIPE ; HORSEFOOT SNIPE ; HEART BIRD ; CHICKEN PLOVER ; RED-LEGGED PLOVER
Length—8.50 to 9.50 inches. A little smaller than a robin.
Male and Female—In summer: Upper parts strangely variegated and patched with chestnut, black, brown, and white; base of tail white, the tail feathers banded with black and tipped with white; white band on wings; beneath, including wing linings, white; the throat and breast jet black divided by a white space. Black, short bill tapers to an acute tip, very slightly recurved; legs orange red; the small hind toe turns inward. The female has less chestnut and more plain brown on her upper parts, and the black lacks the lustre of jet. In winter: Upper parts blackish blotched with gray and brown or ashy brown, and lacking the chestnut feathers; the breast markings more restricted.
Range—Nearly cosmopolitan; nests in Arctic latitudes and in the Western hemisphere; migrates to South America so far as Patagonia.
Season—Irregular, transient visitor; April, May; August, September, or later.
With a bill curiously like a writing pen, this well named wader turns over pebbles, clods of mud, shells, and seaweed on the beaches more commonly about the foot of cliffs and in stony coves than on long, sandy stretches, ever looking for the small marine creatures that satisfy its appetite, particularly for the eggs of the horsefoot or king crab (Limulus polyphemus), its favorite dainty. Often not only the head and bill must be used to push over a stone, but the breast assists too; ordinarily, however, the bird simply pokes its bill under a lighter object, and, giving its head a quick jerk, turns over the roof under which some small prey thought itself secure, swallows the morsel, then runs off to the next shell to repeat the operation. Seaweed is simply tossed aside.
Joseph's coat doubtless showed no more variegated patch-work than the turnstone's nesting plumage, which, however, differs greatly in individuals, scarcely any two of which have precisely the same markings at any season. Because of this variety the early ornithologists believed there were several more distinct species of turnstones than actually exist. Other beach birds are mostly clad in soft tints that so blend with the sand we can scarcely distinguish them until they move; but the calico back, although small, is ever conspicuous, and possibly because it knows how hopeless concealment is, as compared with the confiding, gentle little sandpipers and plovers, it is shy and wild.
Small companies of three or four, or family parties, run about the outer beaches with all the sprightliness of plovers, then stop suddenly to meditate, then run on again, pausing to turn over a shell now and then, but always active, and more ready to place dependence on their fleet legs than on their wings to distance a pursuer; yet when one goes too near, the turnstone rises, uttering a few twittering, complaining notes, flaps its wings quickly, sails low, and with a few more flaps and another sail soon alights at no great distance, to return to the point where it was flushed at its first opportunity. It is wonderfully patient and persistent about exhausting the resources of one feeding ground before looking for another. Wading about in a cove, it will sometimes deliberately seat itself in the water, just as it squats on a beach, and swim off easily to a safe distance across the inlet from the intruder.
A bird that travels from Patagonia to the Arctic Circle to nest, naturally is a fast, strong flyer, the frequent sailings after quick flaps of the wings resting them sufficiently to make long, uninterrupted flights possible. General Greeley found turnstones as far north as he went, and reported that fledgelings which in late June had emerged from clay colored eggs (blotched and scrambled with grayish brown) were able to fly by the ninth of July. A few birds take an inland route during the migrations, and display their freaky feathers on the shores of the Great Lakes and larger rivers.