Thanks to a more experienced birder, I saw a new-to-me bird in the North Basin yesterday evening, as well as a larger-than-ever gathering of a more familiar bird. I was walking north along the east side of the park, checking out birds some distance away in the North Basin — the Coots were back by the hundreds — when I saw a young man with a big fat telephoto lens standing on the green strip east of the pavement, near the dropoff, pointing his lens almost at the ground. He had spotted a gathering of birds at the very edge of the water, invisible from the path. There I saw at first only a familiar Willet, and then more Willets than I had ever seen before, more than a dozen, and mixed in with the pale brown Willets, hard to see in the shadowed black rocks, a bevy of much smaller birds that I’d never seen or even heard of before. “Black Turnstones,” explained the young man, Steve Y., who pulled down an image of the bird from the Bird ID app on his cell phone to show me. While the Willets ignored them and largely seemed asleep, the Turnstones were busy exploring and feeding.
Turnstones, according to the Cornell bird website, got their names from their habit of flipping over small rocks while foraging for food on pebbled beaches. In this setting here, they might have been named barnacle-busters. The birds hopped on the big rocks at the water’s edge, undeterred by the slippery coating of seaweed, and hammered like woodpeckers at the plentiful barnacles that the tide left exposed. The barnacles didn’t stand a chance against these birds’ steely chisels. Not only barnacles but feathered predators like jaegers and gulls have cause to fear these nasal daggers, as the Turnstones are fiercely protective of their nests and breeding grounds along the Alaska coast.
These birds are said to be common and not currently threatened. They can be found in winter from Alaska down to Baja California. So say the experts. Common or not, they were new to me, and I owe thanks to a young man with a big camera for leading me to it.