if you’ve ever wondered if Mother Nature has a sense of humour, just take a minute to look at the black oystercatcher. Garishly coloured and clownishly proportioned, this one-of-a-kind shorebird seems to fully embrace its larger-than-life persona, squabbling and hooting its raucous way along the rocky shorelines of western North America.
If you haven’t had the pleasure of meeting this remarkable character, make your way to the shores of the Pacific Northwest—Stanley Park in Vancouver is a good place to start, or any of the Gulf Islands. Scan the dark, rocky shoreline and listen. With any luck, a garrulous hooty-peepy sound, carrying quite a distance, will help you home in on it. You’re looking for an inky-black wader with an unforgettable orange-red bill; as one author put it, “like a crow smoking a carrot”.
You can’t miss them, once you learn what they sound like. Almost anything will set them into a frenzy of excited hooting and whinnying. Eagles flying overhead, the arrival of their relatives from up the shoreline, a change in the weather, anything. They’re pretty much the drama queens of the coast. Once you learn to recognize the call, you’ll hear it a lot.
Here’s the sound.
Stabbers and Hammerers
It turns out that it’s not easy being an oystercatcher, and it’s not just because they have to scramble around on cold rocks in their bare feet all day. First of all, it takes a lot of skill to outwit the shelled animals that make up their diet. The oystercatchers of the world have two different styles of hunting: you’ve got your stabbers, and you’ve got your hammerers.
Hammerers use their big orange bills to pound their way through the shell of their prey to pull out the juicy insides. Stabbers are a bit more refined; they wait until the mussel or clam relaxes a bit and opens up. Then they quickly stab their big beaks into the opening to eviscerate their prey. Our oystercatchers tend to be stabbers, and it’s a skill that they need to learn and perfect over time.
Most birds are quick to fledge their babies; a sparrow can boot the young ‘uns out of the nest within weeks of their hatching. But oystercatchers are the Millennials of the bird world, taking an extra long time to move out on their own. They need the extra months to learn their hunting skills from Mom and Dad; they won’t develop their full repertoire of techniques until they’re about three years old.
Not getting eaten
Learning to eat isn’t the only skill that a young oystercatcher needs—they also have to master the fine art of not getting eaten. Peregrine falcons are a major predator. These raptors are powerful and fast, and can outfly almost any bird on earth. Our oystercatchers have a tricky defence: they fly away low over the water, just skimming the waves. The falcons won’t risk getting that close to water. Clever birds.
Making the babies
Next time you’re out on the shoreline, look for oystercatchers that have black colouring on the ends of their orange bills; those are this year’s hatchlings, recently arrived from their nesting grounds not far away.
All BC nesting records are from islands. Though they are often seen on the mainland coast, they seem to prefer the security of island life for raising their young. They nest in pairs or colonies, and decorate their simple nest scrape with shells and rock fragments before laying two or three eggs between mid-May and mid-July.
Oystercatchers are a faithful bunch, remaining true to their mates and their nesting sites over many years. Surprisingly long-lived for a bird its size, black oystercatchers may life up to fifteen years. A European oystercatcher holds the family record, finally checking out after 43 years and six months.
Shoreline-dependant equals vulnerable
Black oystercatchers are completely dependent on the thin strip of shoreline along the west coast for their entire life cycle. The intertidal zone can be a very busy place, and oystercatchers (and all the living things they depend on) are best left undisturbed. Keeping your dog on a leash at all times is a big help.
Fortunately, they’re easy to appreciate from a bit of a distance, given their larger-than-life personalities.
Here’s a group of oystercatchers I captured feeding in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.
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