Key facts

Scientific name: Arenaria interpres

Status: Passage migrant and winter visitor

Wintering birds: 48,000 birds

Conservation status: Amber 

Family: Sandpipers & allies

Length: 21 – 24 cm

Wingspan: 50 – 58 cm

Weight: 85 – 150 g


In breeding plumage adult male turnstones have rufous-chestnut upperparts with black patches on the mantle, wings and tail, which has a black subterminal band and a white terminal band. They have white underparts with a black breast band, and the rump is dark brown. The uppertail coverts are white and there is a white wing bar and triangular patch on the inner wing.

The head has a black and white pattern with fine streaks on the crown which extend to the upper breast. The bill is black, eyes are dark brown and legs and feet are orange.

Out of breeding season male turnstones have duller plumage. The upperparts are grey-brown and black with pale edged feathers which give a scaled effect. The head is dark grey or dark brown and the breast band is black.

Female turnstones have duller upperparts and the breast band has pale buff streaks. The head is more streaked and the nape is brown.

Juveniles are similar to non-breeding adults but the upperparts are browner and they have a paler head.


Turnstones breed from mid May to early July. They are monogamous and either nest as solitary pairs or in loose colonies of 3-8 pairs. They female chooses the nest location and builds the nest which is a shallow depression in the ground lined with plant matter, hidden in vegetation and sometimes near water.

Turnstones lay 2-4 olive or buff eggs with darker markings which are incubated by both parents but mostly the female for 22-24 days. Chicks have grey-brown and cinnamon upperparts and light grey underparts. Both parents care for them for up to two weeks and they fledge about 21 days after hatching.


Turnstones eat mainly insects and larvae during breeding season as well as crustaceans, molluscs, worms, small fish, carrion, and birds’ eggs.

It forages by turning over stones, which is the origin of its name, but also seaweed, shells, leaves, and other objects. They are frequent scavengers and will take bread from humans.


Where to see them

Turnstones can be seen for most of the year in the UK. Northern European birds pass through in July and August and again in spring. Birds from Canada and Greenland arrive in August and stay until May. Some non-breeding birds may stay for the summer.

They can be spotted all along the UK coastline. Look out for them on rocky, sandy, and muddy shores, and feeding by seawalls and jetties.


Stein Ø. Nilsen/xeno-canto

Did you know?

Turnstones show an unusual amount of plumage variation compared with other seabirds. The patterns are used to recognise intruders from nearby territories.

Birds in your inbox

Sign up for the latest news and updates

Gifts, bird care, books & more

Most popular

More reading