No Stone Unturned

This is your life as a black turnstone

You hatch one early summer day in a grassy nest not far from the sea. There are no trees in sight; you’re on a small island in the Yukon River Delta in northern Alaska. It’s the only place on earth where the black turnstone breeds.

Once you dry out a bit, you’re a fluffy ball of feathers, ready to run and to learn to survive in this windy world of midnight sunlight. Soon your three siblings make their way out of their eggs and the family is complete. If you have any illusions of your parents feeding as you beg from your nest, they soon evaporate. Your parents lead you to the shoreline and you set out to work, pecking at anything that moves. In this Arctic summer, insects are never in short supply.

Black turnstone close up

You grow up fast when you’re a black turnstone; you have to. Mom disappears when you’re a few weeks old; Dad sticks around until you can fly—and then, well, you’re on your own. You’ve got everything you need to make it in this world, and somewhere deep in your brain is the knowledge that you’ll need to head south soon. You stick around to fatten up and gather strength for about a month after all the adults have left. Somehow you and the other young ones find your way down the coast together, guided by the sun and the stars and the planet’s magnetic fields—without any of you having made the journey before. Your destination: the shores of British Columbia and the lower Pacific states.

There, you find a stretch of rocky coastline just on the edge of the city where, more than once, a couple of tall and strange men with cameras stoop and hunch and snap photos until their knees hurt and their necks are sunburnt. You pay them little heed; there are bugs to eat and falcons to watch out for.

The men call you turnstone, but it’s a woefully inadequate name: you’re a turn-stick, turn-algae, turn-clam, turn-litter, turn-anything that crosses your path in search of the tiny creatures that live along the shores of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, your winter home.

Black turnstone close up

On sunny winter days the shoreline glistens with life; on stormy afternoons you have your dense, waterproof cloak of feathers to keep you warm against the howling westerlies.

Black turnstone close up

And as April comes around, somehow you know you need to travel. With the others of your kind, you make your way northward again. There you’ll find a spot along the Yukon River’s estuaries, and with a little luck you’ll find a life partner. Together you’ll wheel and race and call and hover as you survey your new breeding territory. Shortly you’ll settle down with your own clutch of eggs: four mottled, pointy oval treasures that you’ll guard with your life until they hatch out.

And then, suddenly, at one year of age, you’re a parent. Four fluffy, downy baby birds will look at you for protection from the great windy world that awaits. You lead them to the water’s edge, one eye on the chicks and the other scouring the sky for predators. In a few short weeks, if all goes well, they’ll be on their way.

Good luck.

black turnstones flying

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6 thoughts on “No Stone Unturned”

  1. I like this style, making a young bird the narrator of the story of his early life. The story, like most stories, will stick with us longer than just the usual presentation of facts. Well done.

  2. Nicely written. I learned a lot about this breed, but I had some smiles along the way, like “If you have any illusions of your parents feeding as you beg from your nest, they soon evaporate.” Thanks for all the facts, the abfab pictures and the tale of being born into a Black Turnstone almost family.

  3. Like it! But not every time I suspect. Empathize with the sore knees but do you really get enough sun in winter to get a sunburn in Vancouver? i’ve never seen it.


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