Turning over a new stone

10 January 2020 | Posted in Charlotte Owen , Birds
Turning over a new stone
Turnstone © Bob Eade

By Charlotte Owen

WildCall Officer

The dawn of a new year is traditionally the time to turn over a new leaf.  Nature can provide endless examples of grace, beauty, strength and resilience for us to aspire to, but when it comes to turning things over there’s only one bird for the job.

The Turnstone is an expert in its field, named after its most obvious behaviour of turning stones to look for hidden prey.  It’s an unlikely muse, a rather diminutive shorebird with a dumpy body and little orange legs, and its special ability doesn’t seem overly impressive.  But turning stones is a highly skilled profession, from selecting the best pebble to calculating the optimal entry point and exerting just the right amount of force to turn the stone with minimal effort, before darting in with speed and precision to claim the prize beneath - or, if it turns up empty, persevering and moving on to the next stone. 

Despite its humble appearance, the Turnstone is surprisingly strong and will lift almost anything in its path.  A large rock is no obstacle to a determined Turnstone, who will simply put its back into it and heave, so a simple foraging session can become an impressive full-body workout.  It’s not just about weightlifting though, and the Turnstone has a diverse repertoire of feeding techniques to take advantage of what’s on offer.  These include routing – essentially bulldozing their way through piles of seaweed – digging, probing, hammer-probing (to crack open shelled prey) and surface-pecking.  Individuals have their own preferred techniques but are also influenced by social standing, with more dominant birds often routing their way through a high-yielding patch of seaweed while keeping subordinates at bay with a few well-aimed pecks.  They communicate with each other by posturing and can recognise individuals by their distinctive plumage patterns, which also provide excellent camouflage on the beach.  And when it comes to cardio, the Turnstone is one of the world’s most impressive long-distance flyers, with tagged birds logging a 16,700 mile migration from Australia to the Arctic and back again.  So if you’re on a quest for self-improvement in 2020, look to nature – and leave no stone unturned.

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