Oystercatchers rare birds in the Piney Woods?

Jay V. Huner
Journal Correspondent

The piney woods extend across the southern United States and, in some places, extend to shores of the Gulf of Mexico. So, sea birds can be found within sight of the piney woods. But, don't expect to see a long-legged, pigeon-sized shorebird with a long, large orange-colored bill inland from such locations.

The American Oystercatcher is native to coastal areas along the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. This unique shorebird has a black head and bright yellow eyes with bright orange eye rings. The neck is also black and the back, upper wing with exception of a white wing stripe, and the end of the tail are dark brown. The lower body is white as are the under wings.

American Oystercatchers have never been especially numerous along the Gulf of Mexico. Many area birders do not have this conspicuous shorebird on their state life lists. I have personally found oystercatchers near Sabine Pass, Holly Beach, and Jetty Park in Cameron Parish, and Grand Isle State Park in Louisiana, and the boat harbor at Gulf Shores in Mississippi with tall pine trees in the background.

Oystercatchers around the world do eat oysters. But, oysters are fixed to the bottom in reefs and structures like posts and breakwaters. So, oystercatchers don't have to do much chasing to catch one! However, if you've ever tried to open an oyster, it takes a stout oyster knife and a strong wrist to open one. There are two ways to open an oyster: inserting the knife into the valve holding the two shells together and twisting or breaking the end of the shell slightly, slipping the knife into the opening, and cutting the strong aductor muscle.

The oystercatchers walk amongst oysters at low tide and watch for one with its two shells slightly opened (gapped). They quickly thrust their bills through the opening into the aductor muscle and cut the oyster open. This sounds simple but there are reports that sometimes the oyster is able to close its shell on the bill and oystercatchers sometimes drown as the tide rises!

Oystercatchers can also break open the shells of bivalve mollusks by beating on them. Specialists say that oystercatchers will use this method or the bill thrust method to open bivalves but not both.

Oystercatchers also eat other bivalve mollusks including cockles, mussels, and soft-shelled clams. They will also probe in the soft substrate for various kinds of marine worms and won't pass up small crabs and shrimp.

Oystercatchers nest in spring and early summer on upper sandy beaches and sand dunes. The nests are simple scrapes in which up to 4 eggs are laid. Nest predation by gulls is said to be a problem and nesting oystercatchers avoid areas where gulls congregate. The hatchlings are precocial which means that they are able to move about soon after hatching. They follow their parents and feed themselves with some help.

There is an American Oyster Catcher Group dedicated to oystercatcher conservation. So, if you find an oystercatcher, it may have brightly colored tags on its legs.

If you happen to be on the West Coast and see an oystercatcher, you are most likely to see a Black Oystercatcher. This look alike's body is all black!