Country & Coast: Turnstones

Whitby harbour
Whitby harbour
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On the quayside at Whitby harbour on Sunday I caught sight of some rather tame birds scuttling beneath a lorry. The vehicle was in the process of being loaded with fresh fish from a trawler.

Subconsciously, I think, I dismissed the prowling winged creatures beneath it as street pigeons but a minute or so later they emerged back into the bright sunlight to reveal themselves as turnstones.

There is nothing rare about turnstones on the Yorkshire coast. However, these beautiful little tortoiseshell-plumaged waders - a member of the sandpiper family - are, as their name implies, more often seen pecking methodically for food on stony beaches.

Indeed, their strong necks and short but stout beaks make them capable of turning over stones almost as big as their own bodies in search of crustaceans like sand-hoppers as well as molluscs and insects.

They also creep through swathes of seaweed at low tide, as I am accustomed to finding at least a couple of dozen of them doing so on Filey Brigg and at one or two places along the lower Humber estuary.

Other birdwatchers tell me that they are occasionally to be found feeding on exposed mud around the edges of inland reservoirs during migration times.

No other British wader is so tame. A few years ago three particularly confiding individuals in the car park area of Scarborough harbour allowed me to photograph them from a distance of just two or three yards.

A local fishermen told me that they were a regular sight pecking around the quayside for scraps of food in the company of a rabble of other species - pigeons, starlings, house sparrows and seagulls.

There seemed to be no food that they would turn their beaks up to, he said. Turnstones were up for anything they could get to, from bits of discarded pizza crust and cold chips left by the previous night’s revellers, to pieces of fish thrown to them as catches were being landed from trawlers.

Apparently, the bird is so opportunistic that it has even been known to eat a human corpse, although not on the Yorkshire coast as far as I know.

There is a particularly grisly account of five turnstones being found feeding on a body which had washed ashore on Anglesey in 1966. Another report, in the ornithologists’ journal, British Birds, tells of them eating the remains of a cat.

The more one learns about turnstones, in fact, the more fascinating they become.

For many years they were thought to be so secretive that they managed to breed without anyone being able to find their nests.

So common were they in spring, it was assumed they must be producing young in some cleverly concealed locations. They were even seen copulating and forming nesting scrapes on beaches but, mysteriously, no eggs were ever found or fledglings seen with adults.

A pair nesting in the far north-west corner of Scotland was the only evidence of British breeding, and it was concluded that some non-breeding turnstones simply remain here all summer rather than migrating to their known nesting grounds in Scandinavia, Greenland and Arctic areas of Canada.