Forty years ago, I was climbing a seastack (don’t do this) and when I pulled myself level with the top I was eye to eye with a black bird with that brilliant enamel colored eye, staring right back at me.
That was my first close view of a black oystercatcher. I have seen a few since. We cannot miss their cry, a quick flutey scrawl. We particularly look forward to that sound during nesting season.
According to Oregon Fish and Wildlife, “The black oystercatcher is a large, long-lived shorebird about 38 centimeters (15 inches) in length with a long, thick, reddish-orange bill, a yellow eye encircled by an orange ring, and pink legs, all of which are strikingly set off by entirely black plumage. Juveniles have somewhat browner plumage and a dark tip on the bill. Oystercatchers are monogamous, returning to the same nesting territories to pair with the same mate each year.”
There are oystercatchers nesting both to north and south. The pair we know best have raised babies in the same area for years. We expect to hear and see them when we walk near their nest. They tend to play a common bird game of Oh! Not there! Not there! Follow me! in order to lead us away. On the rare occasions we have seen oystercatcher on the sand, they mill about with gulls and pelicans. Not this season.
“Oystercatchers inhabit marine shorelines, favoring rocky shorelines. They make their nests above the high tide line on offshore rocks, rocky shores, and sand/gravel beaches. The typical nest bowl is a small depression in the sediment containing rock flakes, pebbles, and shell fragments. Foraging habitat is primarily low-sloping gravel or rock beaches where prey is abundant. Oystercatchers feed on a variety of intertidal invertebrates including mussels, limpets, chitons, crabs, barnacles and other small creatures. Contrary to what their name implies, they do not feed on oysters.” The rocky capes near us have limpets, mussels, chitons, crabs, and barnacles, and just now, scads of young crabs. Once in a while we will find a pile of oyster shells on our beach that have been dumped by tourists who ate them for dinner. They do not grow on our shore.
Portland Audubon reports:
The Black Oystercatcher is a unique shorebird species that is a conspicuous and charismatic bird of the coast. Because of their small global population size, low reproductive rate, and reliance on rocky intertidal habitats, they are considered a “species of high conservation concern” and act as an indicator of intertidal ecosystem health.
We hear the black oystercatchers more than we see them, but there is a nesting pair who rigorously protect their nest in a particular spot—the same spot every year.
Last month, I walked directly toward the black oystercatcher nest without realizing it until there, lying on the sand, was an oystercatcher. This is not the sort of behavior we see. Oystercatchers, when we see them, fly above eye level, dashing right to left, left to right, always staying well out of the way and only very rarely landing on sand. This one looked like it was nesting on wet sand.
It’s called a distraction display. Some species are famous for feigning a broken wing or other disability in order to lure potential preditors away from their young.
It was weird to see an oystercatcher so close right in front of me. I wondered how close I could get before she or he flew away.
We’ve assumed there was a nest near here for years because of the screaming fuss they have made when we came near from late spring into August in years past. That day I did not even look around for the nest. We had never spotted it.
Instead, I pulled out my camera and began taking photos to see how close I could get.
I was within five feet before the bird stood up and began walking slowly away.
My assumption had been correct, there was nothing wrong with this bird.
It just didn’t want me where I was. Follow me follow me!
Eventually, the oystercatcher flew to rock just in front of me. It walked along the barnacled ledge, turning now and again to watch me.
Pretty bird. They are smaller than any of the species of gulls we see.
I could hear the other oystercatcher but I kept my eye on the one nearest. Again unaware, we had apparently turned away from approaching their nest. I took more photographs.
When we have gotten too close in years past, they tended to fly all about above us, crying for our attention.
And after a time the oystercatcher flew again to join the other parent sixty feet further along on another prominent rocky mound. We have often seen the pair of them in that spot.
From that shared perch, the parents watched us carefully.
(There might be some difference between male and female oystercatchers that an experienced birder might spot. I see no difference.)
Wwe approached no closer but when the oystercatchers flew away, I began searching the headland, and for the first time I thought I recognized their nest.
The things is, all this trouble to lead me astray from their nest, and in the end it was the parents’ flight that tipped off the location, and anyway, it was over thirty feet over my head. Impossible for me to climb to, even if I were so inclined.
While I could not actually see the nest itself, Gary and I located the high ledge where there seemed to be at least three oystercatchers, one of them less vividly colored.
I could be wrong about all this, of course. Maybe we did not see a juvenile bird at all. But I like to think that, like the Raven family and the Eagle family, the Oystercatcher parents have successfully raised a couple of healthy children this year.
We were by this spot a couple of days ago on one of our 5-mile walks. The black oystercatchers are no longer guarding that stretch of beach. I missed their calls. But in the past three weeks, the youngsters have grown capable of flight without their parents’ performance to lead foolish humans away.
We are all like that, aren’t we? Hoping to lead harm away from our children, our children away from harm? Our loved ones safe from what might threaten them, danger always a possibility that we guard against.