Weather Forecast


Personal observations are sometimes the best

Quite a few years ago I was on an Air National Guard trip to Norfolk, Virginia. If I remember correctly, the other pilot and I had a day off between hops where we had little to do. So off we went exploring territory neither one of us had been to. Here's a little nugget: If you are ever in that area make sure to check out the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, it's considered one of the seven engineering wonders of the modern world. The road is 20 miles long and consists of bridges, trestles and two, mile-long tunnels under the water, all designed to get cars across the lower end of Chesapeake Bay. We couldn't pass that up.

At one of the pullouts along the way we were enjoying the view when I happened to notice some birds walking next to the car. I was very surprised to find they were ruddy turnstones (Arenaria interpres). It wasn't the first time I had seen this species but it certainly opened my eyes to an unexpected behavior. I was aware these birds were somewhat tame but not this tame. I guess it depends on where you go.

The ruddy turnstone is a unique shorebird in a number of ways. The accompanying photograph says a lot. It looks almost clownish with its bold black facial and upper breast markings. Its back is a rich rusty red with a black stripe across it. And it walks on orange legs. When the bird flies it is nearly unmistakable as the red, black and white stripes lining its back and wings are readily apparent.

The bird's common name is suggestive of its rather strange feeding behavior. Turnstones, well, turn stones. That is, they forage along rocky or gravely shorelines turning over objects with their stout bills in a never ending search for invertebrates to eat. It is also known to root in and around piles of seaweed in a manner similar to a pig. And in John Terres's Encyclopedia of North American Birds, I read where the turnstone commonly feeds on crumbs and other goodies from picnic tables. So I shouldn't have been surprised to find them foraging among parking lot leftovers on a bridge.

The very high Arctic is where you will find this bird nesting. But in winter it is seen along oceanic coastlines almost anywhere in the world. So it's only during migration that we North Dakotans get a chance to see this colorful little creature, and among birders, it is one of the most sought-after shorebirds. I can't recall ever seeing more than a small handful at any one time locally, which is in keeping with what the experts say about its foraging behavior - singly or in small numbers. But while migrating, it travels in great numbers and is supposed to fly quite high.

Back to the behavior discussion briefly: Bird observations are chronicled in journals and publications for all to read. However there is still much to understand. Witnessing behavioral traits with one's own eyes is a reward unto itself in addition to personally verifying what one has read. Moreover, there is a very good chance a careful observer could witness something unrecorded. I would have never believed a ruddy turnstone would be eating French fries in a paved parking lot. It wasn't until later I found out turnstones are commonly found foraging there.

The birds are done passing through our region by very early June, so you will likely have to wait until this fall to see them again, though in less dramatic plumage. But there is a record I found where someone saw one as late as June 16. If you happen to see the species after that date, let me know. You may add another little tidbit to local ruddy turnstone lore.