Turnstones

I first came across Turnstones about forty years ago on a trip to the Northumberland coast with my mother. It was August and the tail end of a hurricane had made its way across the country. We stayed in Rothbury, which flooded, and sat in the car at Seahouses while the rain lashed the windows and the sea surged into the small stone harbour. By the time we made it to Bamburgh, the rain had stopped and we had the huge sweep of beach to ourselves. The wind had already dried off the top layer of the strand, and was blowing rivulets of sand along the beach. As we approached the long fingers of weed-clad rocks which ran out into the water, small groups of birds would lift in rapid flight, showing black and white kite patterns as they headed back into cover.

I think they were probably the first shorebirds I had looked at properly and the sight sparked a longstanding interest in waders. Now, I see them at Cardross on the Clyde from time to time, and more often and in greater numbers along the North Ayrshire coast, at Irvine (the point by the Pilot House), Saltcoats Old Harbour, Stevenston Point or Troon South Beach.

The banks of heaped weed close to the sea wall at Troon and Saltcoats often seethe with Turnstones circling as they forage. Their camouflage is entirely successful and they are very easy to overlook when roosting at the water’s edge at high tide.

The Wildlife Trusts tell us that ” Turnstones – so-named for their habit of flipping over large stones – feed on a wide variety of prey from bird’s eggs to chips and even corpses!”

Other sources add coconut and bars of soap to this eclectic menu, on which invertebrates are the staple. There must be any number of food sources to go at after a wild weekend in Ayrshire. Carol Farrelly, a Glasgow author, writes of the birds in her story Turnstones.

A small flock of Turnstones, driven inland by a freak storm, breaks into a library within one of our longer established universities and takes it for themselves, much to the joy of her protagonist Jo, another trespasser (or so she is made to feel) in her institution. Jo retells a story told to her by her father, in which the birds dine particularly well: “‘He thought it was the click-clack-click of turnstones, foraging among the pebbles.’ She repeated her father’s words. ‘The sea had been a right squall that day, but come night-time it was calm. A dark skein of silk. The man thought the water’s shivery lullaby must have called the turnstones, just like it had called him. But no. The turnstones smelled meat. The salt of fresh wreckage. A shipwreck. So, they crept through the tidewrack, digging and flipping stones and flotsam, prodding at whatever lay underneath. Sometimes they hunched their wings, if the pebble or driftwood was too heavy, and then they’d huff and puff. Their click-clack-click grew more and more frenetic. Insects and crabs weren’t good enough that night. The air was so ripe with iron and malt. They knew there was a better feast…The walking man stared as the birds crawled the length of the corpse, like ants mobbing a sugar cane. They pulled strings of flesh from his neck and cheeks – and they trilled.’’

I just had to find the original sources describing the catholic tastes of these birds and thanks to the Wash Wader Ringing Group, I did – British Birds in the 1970s. R. E. Jones (British Birds, 1975, 68, 339-341) heroically teased apart the 37 small and irregularly shaped pellets left by a roosting flock of Turnstones and identified barnacles, crabs and a range of shells. However, in a journal Note published earlier that year, (ibid, 1975, 59, 306-309), A. J. Mercer had described a grisly scene (vide supra) witnessed on an Anglesey beach prompting the editors to write, rather elegantly in my view, “In recent years we have published records of Turnstones feeding on animal remains, ranging from the carcases [sic] of birds and a Wolf Canis lupus in arctic Canada…to those of a sheep and a probable cat in Britain…The above rather gruesome account seems to be the ultimate in necrophagous behaviour, however, and we think that it is now sufficiently established that Turnstones will probably turn to any animal carrion when the opportunity occurs.”