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Black Turnstone is one of the characteristic shorebirds of the Pacific Coast, often seen foraging for invertebrates in the rocky intertidal zone along with its fellow "rockpipers"--Ruddy Turnstone, Wandering Tattler, Surfbird, and Rock Sandpiper. As with these other species that favor the rocky coastline, Black Turnstone is constantly at risk to the threat of oil spills. This species is also highly susceptible to possible catastrophes on its' limited breeding grounds in western Alaska.
Black Turnstone is a chunky, medium-sized shorebird with a short bill and a striking black and white pattern. In all plumages, the head, breast, and upperparts of this species are blackish, and the underparts are white. In breeding plumage, adults have a strong white mark on the face near the base of the bill, and a weak white eyeline. In flight, Black Turnstone shows two white wing markings and a large white patch on the back.
Black Turnstone breeds in western Alaska and winters along the entire stretch of Pacific Coast from southern Alaska to Baja California. British Columbia's Baynes Sound Important Bird Area (IBA) supports a significant wintering population of Black Turnstone, with maximum numbers exceeding 3,000 birds. Crescent Harbor Marshes IBA and Penn Cove IBA, Audubon IBAs in Washington, support smaller numbers of Black Turnstone during the winter.
Based on Christmas Bird Count data, it has been suggested that winter populations of Black Turnstone in the Pacific Northwest may have decreased.
Black Turnstone is strictly a coastal species, migrating and wintering along the rocky shorelines of the Pacific Coast. On its Alaskan breeding grounds, it is found on wet tundra near estuaries or lagoons, never far from the coast. In Alaska, the species feeds mostly on insects, but also consumes some seeds and berries. Along the rocky coast, Black Turnstone forages by walking along rocks and using its short, pointed bill to pry or hammer preferred food items like barnacles and limpets open. On sandy beaches, a turnstone uses its bill to turn over stones, shells, and seaweed in search of food.
Individuals of this species often show strong site and mate fidelity when breeding, nesting at the same exact site with the same mate year after year. Males perform a display flight in which they climb high in the air and dive abruptly like a Common Snipe, with vibrating feathers producing an audible sound. Black Turnstone nests on the ground, usually near water, lining a shallow depression with grass. The nest contains three to four eggs, which are incubated by both sexes for about three weeks. Chicks leave the nest shortly after hatching, and find all their own food. Both parents care for the young at first, but the female often leaves after two weeks, leaving the remaining parental care to the male.
The U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan lists Black Turnstone as a "Species of High Concern," based on relative abundance, threats on breeding grounds, threats on non-breeding grounds, and most importantly, its very small breeding distribution. The entire population of Black Turnstone, numbering approximately 80,000 birds, breeds in a narrow stretch of coastal plain in western Alaska. This concentration of a limited population in a restricted geographic area places the species at a higher risk of being seriously affected by a major catastrophe. Prince Williams Sound, Alaska, site of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, is the major spring staging site for Black Turnstone. The spill caused extensive contamination of turnstone prey items in the area, but there were no studies conducted on the impact on the prey population or Black Turnstone population. The wintering range of this species is within areas that include the major Pacific Coast oil production and transportation facilities, placing it at risk to future oil spills.
The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in Alaska, home to breeding Black Turnstone, and Kachemak Bay, Alaska, an area used by many turnstones in spring and autumn, have both been included in the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (http://www.manomet.org/WHSRN/Sitesmap.htm). One of Black Turnstone's primary spring staging areas, Montague Island, Alaska, has also been nominated for inclusion in the network. The restoration of kelp beds off the coast of Palos Verde Peninsula in California has been associated with increased numbers of wintering Black Turnstone in that area.
What Can You Do?
Audubon's Important Bird Area program is a vital tool for the conservation of Black Turnstone as well as other species. To learn more about the Important Bird Areas program and how you can help, visit: http://www.audubon.org/bird/iba/.
Information on where Black Turnstones occur and in what numbers is vital to conserving the species. Help in monitoring this and other species by reporting your sightings to eBird. A project of Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, eBird is the world's first comprehensive on-line bird monitoring program: http://www.audubon.org/bird/ebird/index.html.
Volunteers are crucial to the success of programs that monitor the long-term status of wintering populations of Black Turnstone and other bird species. Audubon's Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is one of the longest-running citizen-science monitoring programs in the world and has helped to follow changes in the numbers and distribution of Black Turnstone. To learn more about the CBC and how you can participate, visit: http://www.audubon.org/bird/cbc.
Brown, S., C. Hickey, B. Harrington, and R. Gill, eds. 2001. The U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan, 2nd ed. Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, Manomet, MA.
Handel, C. M., and R. E. Gill. 2001. Black Turnstone. (Arenaria melanocephala). In The Birds of North America, No. 585 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
Hayman, P., J. Marchant, and T. Prater. 1986. Shorebirds, An Identification Guide. Houghton Mifflin
Kaufman, Kenn. 1996. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York.