Black Turnstone Arenaria melanocephala


It is curious that the only close relative of one of the most widespread species on earth, the Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres) is actually rather range restricted. Black Turnstones breed only in coastal sedge marshes in western Alaska. During the non-breeding season they migrate south as far as central Mexico, with greatest winter densities on the coast of California. Unlike the Ruddy, the Black Turnstone is much more of a habitat specialist, foraging only on rocky coasts usually in company with the Surfbird (Calidris virgata). The dark plumage of the well named Black Turnstone is certainly to blend in with its major foraging substrate, wet, black rocks. Here it uses its pointed spiky bill to peck and probe at various bivalves and gastropods, including mussels, limpets and the like. In winter, particularly after storms the Black Turnstone will head to beaches adjacent to rocky areas and forage in spots where algae has accumulated in large “algal mats.” Here it forages by flipping portions of algae with its short, straight bill; so rather than turning stones, this species turns algae! The change from winter to breeding plumage is subtle in this bird, but during breeding it does show a pale circular patch on the face, and a pale “saddle bag” on the breast side but in a more subdued manner than the Ruddy Turnstone. When with Surfbirds, the Black Turnstone can be recognized by the darker plumage, smaller size, more hooded appearance, unspotted white thighs and all black, wedge-shaped bill.

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Calls of male advertisement flight and landing

© William W. H. Gunn

  • Year-round
  • Migration
  • Breeding
  • Non-Breeding

Recommended Citation

Black Turnstone (Arenaria melanocephala), In Neotropical Birds Online (T. S. Schulenberg, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. retrieved from Neotropical Birds Online: