Breeding plumage
  • Adult breeding plumage
  • Breeding plumage

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Ruddy Turnstone

Arenaria interpres
This is a large and highly varied group of birds that do not have many outward similarities. Most are water birds that feed on invertebrates or small aquatic creatures. The order is well represented in Washington, with seven families:
This large and diverse family of shorebirds is made up mostly of northern breeders that migrate long distances. Their highly migratory nature leads them astray fairly frequently, and rarities often show up outside their normal range. Many of these mostly coastal birds forage in relation to the tides, rather than the time of day. They use a variety of foraging techniques, but the most common techniques are picking food from the ground or water, or probing into wet sand or mud. Those that probe generally have sensitive bills that open at the tips. Most members of this group eat small invertebrates. Many make dramatic, aerial display-flights during courtship. Nesting practices vary, but both parents typically help raise the young. Clutch size is usually four, and both parents generally incubate. The young are precocial and leave the nest within a day of the hatching of the last chick. Most feed themselves, although the parents generally tend the young for a varying period of time. The female typically abandons the group first, leaving the male to care for the young until they are independent.
Fairly common migrant. Uncommon winter west.
  • Species of Concern

General Description

The Ruddy Turnstone is a compact shorebird with distinctive plumages and bright orange legs. It has a short, wedge-shaped bill that it uses in its unique foraging style. The male in breeding plumage has a rufous back, striped with black and white. The belly is white, and the head is boldly patterned in black and white. A bold, black 'U' in front of the wing is a prominent feature on the male in breeding plumage, and is visible, although less so, in all other plumages. In flight, the Ruddy Turnstone shows white at the base of the tail, on the wings, and on the back. Females and males in non-breeding plumage are duller than breeding males, their backs mottled gray-brown rather than rufous.


Ruddy Turnstones breed in the Arctic tundra. During migration and winter, they inhabit coastal areas with sandy or rocky shores, although they are most typically found on mudflats, especially those with rocks. In migration, they can be found inland in plowed fields.


Ruddy Turnstones flock in small groups, larger in spring than fall, and often occur with Dunlins and Red Knots in the spring. Active foragers, turnstones are best known for their habit of turning over objects and eating the food underneath. They are quite strong and have been known to turn over rocks as big as their own heads. They also flip over seaweed, small sticks, and other objects in their search for food. When moving from place to place locally, Ruddy Turnstone flocks fly in tight groups. During migration, they fly in loose lines.


Ruddy Turnstones are generalists. They eat anything they can find under rocks and seaweed, as well as carrion and often the eggs of small, colonial terns.


Nests are located on the open ground in wet tundra areas or dry rocky ridges. They are sometimes well concealed among rocks or under shrubs. The female builds the nest, a shallow depression with a sparse lining of leaves. Both parents incubate the four eggs for 22 to 24 days. The young leave the nest shortly after hatching and follow the male to food. They feed themselves, but both parents help protect and tend the young. The female usually departs first, leaving the male to watch over the young until they can fly, typically at 19 to 21 days.

Migration Status

The Ruddy Turnstone is a bird of both the Old and New Worlds. Ruddy Turnstones travel from their Arctic nesting grounds to coastal wintering grounds from the southern United States to South America. Range-wide, they winter along the coastlines of every continent except Antarctica.

Conservation Status

The Canadian Wildlife Service estimates the worldwide population of Ruddy Turnstones to number 449,000, with 235,000 breeding in North America and the rest throughout the Arctic. They are common and widespread. Their remote breeding range and widespread winter range should help them remain a common species.

When and Where to Find in Washington

While a few Ruddy Turnstones sometimes winter at Coupeville on Whidbey Island (Island County) and in Willapa Bay (Pacific County), they are predominantly migrants in Washington. They are most common in spring, from late April through May, when they are common on the outer coast and uncommon on the protected shores of Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Migrants are less common in fall than in spring, but they are still fairly common. Adults come through from mid-July to early August, and juveniles follow from late August to late September.

Abundance Code DefinitionsAbundance

C=Common; F=Fairly Common; U=Uncommon; R=Rare; I=Irregular
Pacific Northwest CoastRRUUF UUURRR
North Cascades
West Cascades
East Cascades
Canadian Rockies
Blue Mountains
Columbia Plateau

Washington Range Map

North American Range Map

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Federal Endangered Species ListAudubon/American Bird Conservancy Watch ListState Endangered Species ListAudubon Washington Vulnerable Birds List
Early Warning

View full list of Washington State's Species of Special Concern