Purple Sandiper & Turnstones - Shetland Nature Diary


Monthly nature diaries by local naturalist, wildlife photographer and holiday provider,
Brydon Thomason of Shetland Nature

Throughout the Shetland mid winter months many weeks may pass without the arrival of any particular ornithological highlight or occurrence. But these weeks are far from dull and are often the ideal time to enjoy the simplicity of actually watching birds, any birds. Two of my favourite species at this time of year, both visitors from the Arctic Tundra and Northern Europe are Purple sandpiper and Turnstone.

These two species of small wading birds are a common sight throughout the beaches and shores of the isles, especially through the winter months when small feeding flocks can be found, with the largest congregations often on beaches where rotting seaweed is churned up by the tides. A walk along any of Shetlands beaches should almost guarantee encounters of both these often quite confiding shorebirds. Although similar in size, they are quite different in appearance.

Turnstones' in summer plumage are one of the most strikingly marked waders we see in the isles. They have boldly 'pied' black and white markings across the head and breast contrasting strongly with the bright deep ginger upper parts and stumpy bright orange legs, which along with the bold black and white marking across the upper wings and back they show all year round. They are incredibly industrious feeders actually bulldozing through broken up bits of seaweed and turning over pebbles in search of insects, hence our appropriate local name 'Steen picker' (stone pecker). During winter months they really are a wide spread wanderer along the coasts of Western Europe, Africa, North and South America, even Australia.

Purple Sandpipers are not quite so distinctly marked as the Turnstone, but to me they are every bit as pleasing to the eye. In all my years of seeing these cute little wading birds though, I have yet to see even a hint of purple on them! Perhaps gray sandpiper would have been more an appropriate a name for them. However, drab they are not. They are over all a gray blue in plumage, with paler under parts which all contrasts markedly with their short orange yellow legs. They have a medium length slightly curved bill, which shows the same color as the legs at the lower base.

Male Purple sandpipers are interestingly found to be primarily responsible for parental care of hatch lings, which in other wader species is usually associated with polyandry, (when one female has several different mates) as in the rare Red-necked phalarope which breed on Fetlar. Unusually however, Purple sandpipers are evidently monogamous, with a long-term pair bond- good on them I say!

These two species, to me are just two of the many reasons why a seemingly quiet mid-winters day is always far from dull. Typically both species start to arrive back on our shores as early as August, with numbers building up later into autumn and into winter. Numbers begin to increase again into spring, when birds which have wintered further to the south beginning to filter through on their way north for the Arctic summer. I often dream of finding Britain's first breeding record of either of these two Northern breeders, although there have been sightings of displaying birds, Turnstones especially, in spring, neither have been proven to have bred, but with the ever changing climate and breeding range of so many species - who knows...

Bye for now...
Brydon Thomason

About Brydon Thomason

Brydon runs a specialist wildlife guiding service that focuses on all aspects of Shetlands exhilarating natural history for individuals, couples or small groups (maximum of 6), specialising in: otter watching, bird watching, wild flowers, boat trips and much more. Read more about these trips at www.shetlandnature.net

Having lived in the Shetland all his life, Brydon is one of the most experienced and knowledgeable naturalists in the isles. He welcomes any questions or comments on the monthly nature diary and should you require any information on any aspect of Shetland's natural history please contact Brydon

View Brydons otter watching blog by visiting http://shetlandotterwatching.blogspot.com