American Oystercatcher: Seashore Saturday

Hello friends! This week we are starting a new feature to celebrate the summer: Seashore Saturday! I was raised at the Jersey Shore, so the beach and ocean are very special to me. I don’t live at the shore anymore, but I look forward to taking birding trips at the shore every summer. Many people in New Jersey spend the weekends at the shore, so I figured I could give you a little glimpse of the shore each weekend (even if you don’t live near the ocean!). So this summer we will be exploring some of the shorebirds and seabirds you would find on the coasts if you spend time out on the ocean or on the beach.

Shorebirds and Seabirds are not one in the same. These are actually two distinct groups. Shorebirds are small to medium-sized birds that are found on the beaches and along the water’s edge. This group includes true sandpipers, avocets, oystercatchers, and plovers. Seabirds can be seen along the coastline but many are pelagic, meaning they spend most of their time on the open ocean. Seabirds include terns, gulls, auks, kittawakes, albatrosses, petrels, pelicans, and noddies, just to name a few. Throughout the summer I will be featuring birds from both groups.

Today’s shorebird is one of my personal favorites: the American Oystercatcher.

American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus)

Description:

American Oystercatcher are large shorebirds that are about the size of a crow. They have black heads/upperparts, white underparts, and a bright, long red-orange bill. Their yellow eyes have a red ring around them and they have pale pink legs. Males and females look identical. American Oystercatchers can be found combing the beach for their main food source: bivalves (mussels, oysters,  and clams).

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A pair of American Oystercatchers (Image by David Horowitz)

Range:

Atlantic Coast of the United States from New England down to Florida, Gulf Coast down to South America. Also found on the Pacific Coast of California, Mexico, and down to Chile

Habitat:

Always found near salt water habitats, beaches, mudflats, islands, sandbars

Food:

Shellfish, oysters, clams, mussels, marine worms, sand crabs, jellyfish, sea urchins. American Oystercatcher forage in shallow water and use their long bills to break open shells. They have two techniques for breaking shells: hammering the shell or finding a shell that is slightly open and jabbing its bill inside to clear the contents.

 

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(Last summer Dave filmed an American Oystercatcher foraging at Barnegat Lighthouse State Park. Here’s the footage)

 

Breeding and Nesting:

American Oystercatchers start breeding when they are 3-4 years old. Sometimes they form pairs for life, but sometimes they may form trios of one male and two females to tend to a nest. Both males and female will create a nest on the ground by scraping out sound and lining it will pebbles or shells. Nests are usually found in sand dunes or  marsh islands above the high tide mark. They will make multiple nest sites, but only line one.Oystercatchers have one brood per year with a clutch size of 1-4 eggs. There may be 5 or 6 eggs if two females are sharing a nest with a male. The eggs are incubated for 24-28 days. The young will leave the nest within a day after hatching and be fed by the adults for about 2 months. The chicks will take their first flights at about 5 weeks old.

Sounds:

Loud wheep! whistles

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American Oystercatcher (Image by BirdNation)

Fun Facts:

  • Courting pairs will walk together making a loud single piping note. They will proceed to bend over, extend their necks, and run while calling side by side. Sometimes they will go into flight and be joined by other Oystercatchers in the area.
  • Atlantic Coast and Pacific Coast Oystercatchers  are considered different races. The Pacific race is from Baja California southwards; north of Baja the species of Black Oystercatchers are prevalent.
  • They can be confused with Willets during flight, because both birds flash black and white as they fly. However, the American Oystercatcher’s bright bill is noticeable during flight.
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Author: BirdNation

I am an avid birder, teacher, and nature lover. I primarily birdwatch throughout New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania.

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