Today this large, stocky, brightly marked shorebird is conspicuous in the Chesapeake Bay region – having rebounded after being hunted to near extinction along the East Coast in the 18th and 19th centuries, sought after for food and its plumage. Once again a common sight along the mid-Atlantic coast and Eastern Shore, the American oystercatcher makes its home on sandy or pebble beaches, oyster bars, and at the edges of salt marshes or mudflats.
In flight the oystercatchers extended wings reveal a broad white wing stripe. Their call is also is conspicuous: they can utter a shrill ‘kleeep!’ call or plover-like ‘clee-ar’.
The oystercatcher uses its brightly-colored bladelike bill to feed, inserting it into bivalves such as mussels and oysters, and severing the muscles that hold the shells closed. These voracious feeders will also hammer shells until they break open, revealing the clams, snails and other mollusks inside.
Oystercatchers breed in spring along the Bay’s shorelines, laying clutches of between two and four speckled eggs in shallow sandy hollows that are lined with beach debris and crushed shell – which help disguise the egg. Incredibly protective of their young, both parents incubate the eggs; adult birds have been known to fake an injury to divert a predator’s attention from a nest, or pretend to brood at an alternate sight.
In the winter, oystercatchers will migrate sometimes in large flocks as far south as the Caribbean, but will occasionally remain in the Mid-Atlantic between Maryland and North Carolina.
Photograph of American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus)