Speaking of Nature: New nemesis: American oystercatcher

  • The yellow “KU” bands and the aluminum band on the lower right foot allowed me to register a banding report to Audubon’s “American Oystercatcher Working Group.” FOR THE RECORDER/BILL DANIELSON

  • I knew the photo gods were with me when I captured this photo of an American oystercatcher in flight. FOR THE RECORDER/BILL DANIELSON

Published: 8/22/2021 5:00:11 PM

In 2014, I visited Martha’s Vineyard and discovered that I had a vacation nemesis —the osprey. This ubiquitous bird was seen almost everywhere, but was supremely uncooperative for most of my stay.

When I had a camera in my hand the bird seemed to know to stay far enough away that any photos would be largely useless. When I didn’t have my camera, an osprey with a freshly caught fish would fly by so close that I could see the bird’s pupils. It was maddening!

This seems to have abated somewhat over the past seven years. The first osprey that I saw this year came quite close and although it wasn’t carrying a fish I did get a nice photo. However, the baton was passed from the osprey to a new species that would put on the mantle of nemesis — the American oystercatcher. A new species, a new struggle.

The westernmost end of Martha’s Vineyard is home to the town of Aquinnah. On the northern shore of Aquinnah there is an area that is known as “West Basin” and it was here that I first realized that I had a new nemesis. I had decided that I would visit West Basin every morning and sit on the beach where I could watch birds with the sun to my back. Every morning I woke up, every morning I made it to West Basin and every morning I saw a pair of American oystercatchers. The problem was how I saw them: always from a great distance and always for just a fleeting moment before they flew away. As with the ospreys in 2014, it was maddening.

But tenacity and persistence is sometimes rewarded and I think the photo gods were watching me and were impressed with my efforts. There came a day when I parked my car, went straight to the spot that I had seen the birds in the past and found them. They were far away, but I was undeterred. I started my slow and deliberate approach. The birds saw me clearly, but this time they didn’t fly off. I got closer and closer and the small feeling of hope started to grow within me. That was what they were waiting for and they took flight.

I watched the birds with a sinking feeling of horror in my bones. Another stalk with nothing to show for it! But then the gods intervened. The birds suddenly turned, slowed and landed on a sandbar that had an exposed mussel bed. I even managed to snap a photo of one of the birds coming in for a landing. They were actually closer to me than they were when they took flight and it was for that reason that I suddenly noticed that one of the birds was banded.

The pair was quite vociferous and animated. They were vibrantly alive and it was thrilling to be this close to them. That did not prevent me from slowly moving closer to them. Over the course of 30 minutes I managed to get about 20 feet closer by taking one baby step after another. All the while I saw the birds interacting with each other and with other birds and in so doing I decided that the banded oystercatcher was probably the male.

He followed the unbanded bird wherever “she” went and he also showed some aggression toward a young willet (another shorebird) that got “too close” to them. The oystercatchers were very interested in the mussels and several times I observed the birds’ feeding technique. They would search for a mussel with its shell slightly open. Then they would quickly jab their slender beaks into the open shells. The beaks of oystercatchers are laterally compressed and remind me of letter openers. Once the beak was in the mussel shells it was all over for the mussel.

The birds would pick up the mussel, carry it to shallow water, use those letter-opener beaks to slice the mussels free of their shells and then gulp down the whole mussel the same way that I have been gulping down whole oysters all week. The willet was clearly looking for leftovers, but I saw it catch and eat more crabs than anything else.

The icing on the cake was that I could read the bands and report a banded bird sighting to the American Oystercatcher Working Group. The yellow leg bands with the codes “KU” were easy enough to read. They aluminum leg band on the lower right foot was not quite as easy. I was able to read the last numbers as “16,” but with a 9-digit number that probably isn’t much help. It felt really good to make peace with my new nemesis and contribute to science at the same time. My only regret is that there was no information available on what the “KU” on the yellow bands might indicate.

There is still some of summer left for us to enjoy and Labor Day weekend is not far off. If you are planning a trip to the coast I hope you are able to bring a camera or a pair of binoculars with you. Any time you are near the ocean there is a chance that you might spot a banded bird and if you can read the bands you can potentially contribute to science yourself. It will make the oysters you enjoy later in the day all the sweeter!

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 24 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.


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