The ruddy turnstone is an unusual visitor to Wisconsin, typically living in the Arctic and wintering 6,500 miles away in Australia — which doesn’t explain how one turned up in Milwaukee. (Contributed photo by Paul Brennan from Pixabay)

I’ve been writing lately about unusual birds that visit our region occasionally in the winter, and to date those visitors have all been landlubbers: owls, finches, corvids, etc. So I was excited to read a story in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel about not one but three rare waterfowl seen hanging out around Bradford Beach and the Hoan Bridge on Lake Michigan, drawing in hardy birdwatchers. This winter aquatic-birding hat trick is brought to us by an odd couple and a social butterfly: a ruddy turnstone hanging out with a purple sandpiper, and an extremely rare tufted duck paddling around with a large rafts of river ducks south of downtown Milwaukee. Let’s learn a little more about these visitors, who we may not see here thanks to how early our Great Lake freezes up most years.


Sarah Morris

I’ve always snickered when I saw “ruddy turnstone” in bird books, because I think its name sounds vaguely like an insult. But these orange-legged long-haulers are efficient, hardworking birds who breed in the far Arctic tundra and overwinter as far south as Australia. Some of them migrate as far as 6,500 miles, something to think about the next time you take a long airline flight. During the summer they resemble a calico cat with their orange, black and white coloring, but during the winter they’re a more muted brown and white with a dark black neck ring. They get their name from their habit of flipping over rocks and debris to get at the fatty insects and crustaceans they need to support their long migration. Their feeding habits make them vulnerable to micro-trash and plastics on shorelines, which are easily mistaken for crustaceans and can harm them when ingested. You might catch a glimpse of one along the South Shore during their spring and fall travels, but it’s unusual to see them away from the coasts in the U.S. during winter.


The tufted duck, with its distinctive cowlick on the back of its head that gives it its name, is a true oddity being native to Eurasia. The one seen in Milwaukee is just the third confirmed siting ever in the state. (Contributed photo by No-longer-here from Pixabay)

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