Outer Banks Birding: Oystercatchers and other local nesters

By on June 9, 2018

(Photos by Jeff Lewis)

Birding is good in June, if you know where to look.

The vast majority of shorebirds are nesting in June, and they’re doing it primarily up in more northerly latitudes and especially on the Arctic tundra, where food is plentiful during the brief summer.

Luckily, we do have a few species that call the Outer Banks home during the nesting season. Let’s take a look at one of the most interesting of these local shorebirds, the American Oystercatcher.

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American Oystercatchers are one of 12 oystercatcher species worldwide. Large, stocky shorebirds, mostly coastal, they have a heavy, knifelike bill, used for feeding on mollusks, thus the name.

Our oystercatchers are fairly common and are permanent residents. They are very distinctive. They have a black head and neck (hood) with a large, bright orange-red bill, white underparts and a dark brown back.

The wings have a large white wing patch that is conspicuous in flight. Their legs are pinkish. When seen closely, as through binoculars or a spotting scope, the eyes are amazing; yellow with a dark pupil and a bright red ring encircling the eye.

Usually when I spot oystercatchers, they have seen me first and have alerted me to their presence with their calls. They are fairly shy and often let out a distinctive, loud call as they take flight, a high-pitched whee-u or kweep!

Oystercatchers can be found on the Outer Banks primarily from Bodie Island south, on the ocean beaches, in the inlet, or on the sound side.

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There are just too many people on the northern beaches for oystercatchers to feel comfortable.

When an American Oystercatcher searches for food, they look for mollusks with their shells partially open. Then they jab their bill inside, cutting the muscle that controls the shell and eating the prize.

According to Wikipedia, sometimes a mollusk can clamp down on the bill of an oystercatcher and hold it there until the tide comes in and the bird drowns! Call it an occupational hazard.

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Oystercatchers also simply hammer a shell until they gain access to the juicy insides. Oystercatchers feed on other sea-life too, including starfish, crabs and marine worms.

When they reach 3 to 4 years of age, American Oystercatchers become sexually mature. They breed between April and July.

When courting, the pair will walk together making a piping call. Then they will raise and lower their neck and run alongside each other while calling. Finally, they may fly together around their territory. Once paired up, oystercatchers are often monogamous.

Their nest is built above the high tide line in dunes, in salt marsh or on spoil islands. The nests are merely shallow depressions scraped into the sand, and sometimes lined with shells or pebbles.

Nests are around 8 inches in diameter and a couple of inches deep. When the scrape is finished, the female oystercatcher then lays 2 to 4 speckled eggs.

Although the eggs are camouflaged, they are vulnerable to predation by gulls, crows, foxes, raccoons and coyotes.

Dogs running loose on the beach can also pose a serious threat. Both parents incubate the eggs, which take about 24 to 29 days to hatch.

When born, the chicks are covered in downy feathers and can run within 2 hours of hatching. They are precocial, meaning they can leave the nest soon after hatching.

The chicks still rely on their parents for food, however, as it takes up to two months for the beak to become strong enough to pry open mollusks.

Juvenile oystercatchers resemble the adults, but are lighter-backed, and their bill is duller with a dark tip. They can fly at about 5 weeks.

A fairly reliable spot to see American Oystercatchers and their young in summer is on the north end of Pea Island, on the beach south of the rock groin.

They are often seen around the mudflats and shallow tidal pools. Binoculars or a spotting scope are usually needed for good looks.

Please keep your distance from all nesting areas, which are marked with signs and strings. Dogs are not allowed.

Other shorebirds that nest in Dare County are Killdeer, Piping Plovers, Wilson’s Plovers (sometimes), Black-necked Stilts and Willets.

Oh, and those strange American Woodcocks, which live in the woods.

Piping and Wilson’s Plovers nest on the ocean beaches, Black-necked Stilts and Willets in or near marshes and Killdeer nest in parking lots, fields, flower beds, road shoulders … most anywhere!

Also nesting on our ocean beaches in June are Least Terns, Common Terns and Gull-billed Terns (in small numbers).

The action in the tern colonies is fast and furious, with constant flights to the ocean for fish and back again, to feed those “bottomless pit” chicks.

Over on some of the spoil islands, Royal and Sandwich Terns are doing the same thing. Black Skimmers, really cool-looking, over-sized relatives of terns, are also nesting on the beaches.

They feed by flying low to the water and skimming their over-sized bill through the water, hoping to pick up a small fish or other prey.

Out on the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, a dozen species of wood-warblers and half that many woodpeckers are also rearing their young.

Sitting quietly and watching carefully may allow you to experience this wonder of nature. In early morning you may even catch a glimpse of a Northern Bobwhite family along the edge of a farm field.

Of course, the bears, wolves and bobcats are plenty entertaining, as well!

In our backyards, if there are plenty of shrubs and trees, our beloved Carolina Chickadees, Northern Cardinals, Blue Jays, Mourning Doves, Northern Mockingbirds and the like are nesting as well.

You may even have young birds following the adults to your feeders by the time you read this article, so keep your feeders well-stocked and your water features clean and filled with fresh water.

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