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American Oystercatchers

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

I consider American oystercatchers to be something of a miracle. Decimated by market shorebird hunting by the mid-1800's, the species has rebounded. They're big, hearty birds, the size of a bantam, the female bigger and heavier than the male, oddly enough. They were rare nesters in Connecticut--on the order of a handful of pairs--when I lived there in the late '80's and early 90's, but now they are the most common breeding shorebird on Long Island. Which, when I think about it, isn't saying all that much, because what's the other choice? Piping plover?? Willet? Anyway, they're more common than they used to be, that's for sure, and that's cause for celebration. They nest right on the ground in a shell-fragment lined scrape, and they defend their nests with piercing whistles and dramatic distraction displays. I was thrilled to see a pair with their yet-to-be fledged youngster striding along South Beach. Yes, he can fly, so he's technically a fledgling, but he's not going anywhere just yet.

American oystercatchers have an extremely long juvenile dependency period--fully 60 days of following their parents around, begging for food. Well, no wonder: opening oysters (or prying limpets off rocks, or cutting the adductor muscle of a bivalve) is no picnic, and not for beginners. Baby oystercatchers must learn their trade at the wrinkly pink feet of the masters--their parents.

So this gangly youngun, all pink stockings and oversized body, was peeping after his providers on the sunny flats. He's the one in the middle, with the underdeveloped bill.

Oystercatchers always have a comment on something--they pipe and whistle whenever they move.

And they move me when they fly, all flashes of white, black and blazing orange.
blurry photos are better than no photos blurry photos are better than no photos blurry photos
In case you missed it, I had the image stabilizing motor on my telephoto lens switched off all that golden day on South Beach...which is causing me great embarrassment.

As a partial antidote, I offer one of my drawings, of a still-downy oystercatcher watching closely as its parent chisels away at a limpet.This is among my favorite drawings, because it captures the sweetness of a young bird without being treacly.

It was done for the Birds of North America series. I drew birds for the print edition for the ten years it was in production, and they're now all online, too, thanks to the Lab of Ornithology. It's hard to draw baby birds well. There are very few drawings or paintings of them, in my opinion, that are true representations. Lars Jonsson does an amazing job with them, as does Al Gilbert. You have to sort of get inside them to draw them, and study what it is that gives them their special look. It helps to have one right in front of you.


You're right about their calling. We saw two at Southport beach in Fairfield CT. about two weeks ago, and it was the peeping that made me notice them.

What a treat - photos and a real picture! Thanks! Love your blog.

I've never seen one, so even a blurry one is a treat! :c)

Great birds, shaky photos and all. I still don't have an American Oystercatcher on my Life List. I have seen the UK version in Scotland, and they look very similar.

Will I have a chance at oystercatchers at Cape May this October?

~Kathi, whose verification word was "fixunzyp" (Fix un zip; kind of like XYZ?)

Love the drawing - you are a talented artist!

when were you on south beach? in chatham?? i work for audubon and am leading a group there this afternoon! i think i know these oystercatchers....;-)they are among my favorite birds....

also, just posted about finches nesting on a boat in nauset cove and thought you might get a kick out of it....

When you are scoping shorebirds and a non-birder asks what you are doing, there is nothing better than giving them a look at American Oystercatcher.

I never know what kind of new and strange bird I'll see when I get here. You put me in suspense every day! What you see is remarkable and entertaining, even when the pictures are blurry. Love it.

My God you're talented! I love your artwork.
This is a favorite bird of mine. The markings are so clear and distinct and the antics so amusing.

I especially like their flashy bills.

what's the other choice? Piping plover?? Willet? The most common shorebird on Long Island is, I believe, the Suburban Whoo-hoo Girl, characterized by an excess of gold jewelry, exceptionally big hair, and a tendency to drink too much.

The above Lisa is NOT my sister and I recognized it was NOT her when I read her comment.

(OK, it is my sister. I can't believe I admitted that in public.)

~KD, wearing a Groucho Marx disguise

I liked that comment! We just hope the Woo-Hoo's don't stay around to breed on the beach, but doubtless some of them do.
Lisa, I like what you do to Barbie dolls. We made a mummy out of ours with white artist's tape. It was a very shapely mummy.

That's a darned good drawing.

Wow, this really made me nostalgic because I just got back from monitoring oystercatcher nests on the Cape! I miss them already. Especially their wheedly calls! Of course, they also go by the name 'Oystersnatcher' in some circles. What a great drawing!

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