The use of stable isotopes in animal ecology depends on accurate descriptions of isotope dynamics within individuals. The prevailing assumption that laboratory-derived isotopic parameters apply to free-living animals is largely untested. We used stable carbon isotopes (δ13C) in whole blood from migratory Dunlin (Calidris alpina arcticola) to estimate an in situ turnover rate and individual diet-switch dates. Our in situ results indicated that turnover rates were higher in free-living birds, in comparison to the results of an experimental study on captive Dunlin and estimates derived from a theoretical allometric model. Diet-switch dates from all 3 methods were then used to estimate arrival dates to the Arctic; arrival dates calculated with the in situ turnover rate were later than those with the other turnover-rate estimates, substantially so in some cases. These later arrival dates matched dates when local snow conditions would have allowed Dunlin to settle, and agreed with anticipated arrival dates of Dunlin tracked with light-level geolocators. Our study presents a novel method for accurately estimating arrival dates for individuals of migratory species in which return dates are difficult to document. This may be particularly appropriate for species in which extrinsic tracking devices cannot easily be employed because of cost, body size, or behavioral constraints, and in habitats that do not allow individuals to be detected easily upon first arrival. Thus, this isotopic method offers an exciting alternative approach to better understand how species may be altering their arrival dates in response to changing climatic conditions.