Pictured here on a stony beach in Salt Island, this chunky short-legged sandpiper (about 8 inches by six) is known as the calico cat of birds, with its black, white and chestnut coloring, set off by the orange-red legs. It does in fact turn stones with its bill to find the food lurking beneath, sometimes working in teams to overturn larger objects. Its menu is extensive, including insects, siders, berries, seeds, barnacles, crabs, mollusks, worms, sea urchins, small fish, any human food scraps and even the eggs of other birds.
Females build the shallow nests on the ground or in crevices among rocks, lining them with leaves. The male takes the greater part in raising and training the young, until they are fully fledged. The chicks learn fast and can leave their nests within a day. The feet of Turnstones are specially adapted to enable them to walk on slippery wet rocks, with spiny soles and short curved toenails.
Ruddy Turnstones cover great distances in their lives and need to fly fast, averaging speeds of around 40 mph. They live to 15 years or so, 16 years, 11 months being the oldest recorded.
Salt Island first appeared on the world stage in the days of the Dutch West India Company when the Netherlanders commanded the Virgin Islands and built a large trading post in Freebottom where goods sailing south from New Amsterdam (New York) could be exchanged for sugar and other cargoes from their South American holdings, and vice versa. One of the most important shipments was the salt from Salt Island used to preserved the fish on which numerous seafarers existed. This became a vital resource when war was declared against the Spanish and the great salt pans of Venezuela were no longer available to the Dutch.
The Virgin Islands were under British rule when Salt Island achieved further notice after a hurricane in 1867 when the royal mail packet steamer RMS Rhone was wrecked off its shores.The island’s inhabitants were able to help 24 survivors and of the one hundred victims buried the eight washed up on their beaches, in a cemetery near their own anchorage. When Queen Victoria heard of this, she deeded the island to its people in perpetuity, in return for the rent of one bag of salt per year, which the Governor still takes when he goes back to the UK for his yearly holidays in May. The wreck of the Rhone appears in the film ’The Deep’ and is the most famous snorkeling and scuba-diving site in the BVI.
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