We were hoping to see some late-summer neotropical migrants beginning their flights south. With their worn, drab plumages and somewhat irregular migration schedule, these birds can be a real challenge to find and identify.
Geography would be our ally. As the Delmarva Peninsula narrows near its southern tip, migrants are funneled into a narrow swath of forests and marshes.
Close to our destination, our trip was interrupted by a pair of big shorebirds on the beach of a narrow inlet. We made a quick stop to take a closer look.
Leaning against the car, binoculars in hand, we were looking at two of the oddest-looking birds in the Chesapeake. The tide was ebbing, and the big, cartoonish birds were busy probing the sandy beach, looking for food.
American oystercatchers look more like the product of an imaginative 5-year-old’s crayons than actual shorebirds. There is nothing subtle about this bird’s bold coloration. Long, straight, bright red bills resemble a clown’s nose gone awry. Yellow marbles sparkle inside jet-black heads. Chocolate brown backs are bracketed by white shoulders and tail tips. Thin pink legs reach down from the clear, white belly.
We were watching the birds from a pullout adjacent to the two-lane road heading south.
Oystercatchers are much more plentiful on the Atlantic beaches a few miles east than they are in the Chesapeake. They have a highly restrictive habitat requiring beaches with plentiful bivalves, their primary food source.
American oystercatchers (Haematopus palliatus) are one of just two oystercatchers found in the Western Hemisphere. They populate shorelines from the mid-Atlantic to Argentina, and on the West Coast from Baja California down to Chile.
Their close relative, the black oystercatcher, is found only on Pacific coastal beaches from Southern California to Alaska.
As the two American oystercatchers we were watching demonstrated, this species requires sand or rocky beaches. They use their sturdy bills to jab into open bivalves, where they sever the mollusk’s big muscle and then enjoy the tasty seafood.
Difficult to see without binoculars, the tip of that candy-red bill is slightly flattened. This adaptation facilitates the bird’s ability to slip its bill into the narrow opening of an oyster, clam or mussel.
If the bird doesn’t cut that powerful muscle, the bivalve will close tightly, holding the bill closed. In such cases, oystercatchers will sometimes break the shellfish away from its colony and then dash the attached creature against a nearby rock.
In addition to grabbing the insides through the bivalve’s natural opening, oystercatchers will probe into sandy soil to break the thin shells of razor clams and other soft-shelled bivalves.
Oystercatchers’ permanent northern range ends around the mouth of the Bay, although it appears to be moving slowly up the Atlantic coast.
The population of oystercatchers is considered stable, but some worry about the bird’s highly restricted habitat preferences. They typically scrape a small depression on the beach for their nest. Particularly high tides and storm surges can flood nests.
Mammals, such as raccoons and foxes, as well as predator avian species like gulls, will also attack nests.
Oystercatchers produce only one brood annually, so such events can wipe out an entire breeding season.
Dredge materials that have been deposited onto artificial islands have become prized habitat for nesting. They are usually elevated enough to prevent flooding. In addition, they are safe from land-based predators.
It’s not just their strange looks that set oystercatchers apart.
Unlike most shorebirds, oystercatchers form pair bonds and the parents feed their young. Each brood consists of four to six eggs and the birds are fully feathered upon hatching. They leave the nest after just one day. Despite their early signs of independence, young oystercatchers will stay with their parents through the first winter.
As the Chesapeake tide continued to recede, our birds dashed about on the exposed oyster bed, snatching raw oysters.
Birding can be challenging sometimes. Difficult terrain, stinging insects, inclement weather and frustrating vantage points are common.
Yet sometimes it can be surprisingly easy. This was such an occasion: watching fun birds run around in plain sight, showing off their colorful plumage. We hadn’t expected to see oystercatchers this far into the Bay, but there they were.
We might have passed these birds right by, determined to seek out the songbirds that were the reason for our three-hour trip. Even with the stop, the viewing might have been strictly analytical, noting species, number, habitat and all the details birders include in their field notes. But field guides and notebooks stayed in the car. This one was just for fun.
Stopping to savor simple joys can be the best part of any day. We just need to be open to the easy delights when they sneak into our lives to put smiles on our determined faces.