by Jeff Sinker
Reprinted with permission from
Skagit Audubon Society
If you have ever been standing on a rocky shoreline, heard a loud ringing whistle, and then seen a large stocky dark bird with a striking reddish-orange bill fly by and land amongst the mussel-covered rocks, you’ve just seen a Black Oystercatcher!
Ranging from Alaska to Baja California, these shorebirds are never far from the rocky coastline of the Pacific Ocean. They prefer to feed on the rising and falling tides because the shells of mussels and other bivalves open more often, making it easier for the oystercatcher to pry the shell completely open to spear the meat inside. Oystercatchers also feed on crabs, which they smash, single-shelled mollusks like limpets, which they chisel off the rocks, and they probe for clams in the mud. Despite their name, they only occasionally eat oysters!
Oystercatchers place their nests on the ground well above the high-tide line on beaches that gently slope to the adjacent feeding area. The male makes several scrapes on the ground and the female selects one. A clutch of 1-4 eggs is laid and both parents share incubation duties for 24-29 days. The downy chicks are able to walk as soon as they are dry and both parents protect and feed their young for several months. It takes time for the youngsters to learn how to open the hard shells of mollusks and similar prey items.
Oystercatchers are sensitive to human disturbance at feeding and nesting sites, oil spills, and other marine pollutants. Most birds are permanent residents in their range, but some will wander away from breeding areas during spring and fall. Black Oystercatchers can be seen regularly along the rocky shorelines of Deception Pass State Park at West Beach and Rosario and also at Washington Park in Anacortes.