Springtime has arrived! Familiar summer birds are now returning to coastal areas around New York Harbor.
Recently, I spotted a pair of American oystercatchers near the tip of the Sandy Hook peninsula, located where the Atlantic Ocean meets the estuary. The birds have migrated back from their winter home down south, as far away as the Gulf of Mexico or as close as South Jersey, to spend the next several months raising the next generation of oystercatchers.
American Oystercatchers are unique looking stocky shorebirds. Both male and female birds have largely dark and white feathers with pink legs and yellow eyes. The bill, though, is an oystercatcher’s most striking feature. It’s long and bright. A red to orange five-inch bill that is a perfect tool for harvesting shellfish and worms, pretty much anything living along the coast.
The name “oystercatcher” comes from the bird’s lengthy, blade-like bill it uses to catch and cut open not only oysters in the harbor, but also clams, mussels, and other bivalves found while foraging in mudflats or in wet sandy areas during low tide. An oystercatcher can use its strong heavy bill to jab open a mussel shell by forcing its bill between two halves of a bivalve's exoskeleton or by hammering open a shell by pounding the crusty covering again and again.
Oystercatchers love to catch worms too! I know this from watching one hungry oystercatcher the other day. It was foraging in the wet sand during an outgoing tide in a small tidal waterway leading out to Sandy Hook Bay. The bird was searching for food. It kept plunging its long bill all the way down into the sand. Something must have been there, a clam, mussel, crab, or worm?
A few second later, out pops something long and slimy in the bird’s beak. A tasty worm was found.
I watched as the oystercatcher seized the worm before the poor slimy critter could crawl back into the wet sand. The worm tried to make a run for it, but clearly this shorebird was skilled.
The oystercatcher employed a method known as ‘digging." The bird would thrust its bill quickly into the wet sand two or three times like a trowel to dig out and pick up a wet worm. The poor critter didn’t have a chance.
Once the worm was in the bird's bill, the hungry oystercatcher could easily use its specialized tongue to move the worm inside the bill and consume the squishy critter. In this case, tasty pieces of a silky ribbon worm.
In addition to worms, oystercatchers can forage along the edge of the water for sea urchins, sea stars, crabs, and clams. Whatever tasty meal it happens to stumble upon.
Oystercatchers, though, don’t spend all their time foraging for food. According to Jon Altman from the National Park Service at Cape Lookout National Seashore in North Carolina, American oystercatchers will only spend about 10 percent of their time searching for food during the pre-laying period, which is before the laying and incubation of eggs. The birds, in part, are busy defending territories and establishing nesting sites.
As a child growing up along the Jersey Shore during the 1970s, catching sight of an Oystercatcher was rare. Decades of over-hunting for their feathers and eggs, the loss of beachfront habitat due to over-development, and contaminated shellfish from industrial toxins and human waste all combined to weaken the population. Today, the species is still considered to be in decline in New Jersey and New York. The American Oystercatcher is listed as a species of special conservation and concern in both states.
Yet, down along the Jersey Shore and in the back bays there are a few lucky areas where oystercatchers still continue to nest. Many can be found in South Jersey, around Great Bay, Egg Harbor, and the Absecon and Hereford inlets. Another prime location is surprisingly in northern Monmouth County, along the Navesink River, Sandy Hook Bay, and Raritan Bay. Breeding pairs here number in the dozens.
It’s these oystercatchers that are helping to bring back the birds to their historic range. While the birds are making some progress, certainly more needs to be done to clean up our coastline, and restore and preserve habitat. A slow resurgence in New York Harbor of the American oystercatcher, a bird with a beautiful bill.