My season with Oystercatchers

American Oystercatchers were such a heartbreak this summer, I can’t even tell you!

I’ve been struggling with how to write about my beach-nesting bird experience in NJ… I’m not really sure what that’s about, but there’s no question that I enjoyed myself.

Was the season a success? I think so, but there are so many factors that have a hand in the success or failure of these birds and the truth, I think, is that I don’t have enough experience to understand yet how the factors all work together.

We had 8 pairs of AMOYs (American Oystercatchers) who made 14 nest attempts. Nine chicks hatched and 8 fledged. Eight fledges is a good number! Only one pair succeeded on their first nest attempt and one pair didn’t ever succeed, despite three tries. These are just numbers, really, and give no hint of the sweat and tears (mine) or the various struggles involved.

American Oystercatchers are comical birds and shy, as a rule. Each pair had a distinct personality and perspective on life as an Oystercatcher. It was a huge privilege to know these birds as individuals and to watch over them during the season. Unlike Piping Plovers who are so hard to detect on the beach, American Oystercatchers are very visible and were a constant source of entertainment and worry for me.

The 4 pairs that had the easiest (?) breeding success did so on a dredge spoil island. I loved going out there to check on them, despite the nearly impenetrable phragmites that covered much of the island. Aside from the occasional kayaker at low tide, I usually had the place to myself and had to go into full stealth mode to even get a look at the adults or chicks because the birds there were so shy. There were also breeding Killdeer and Yellow Warblers and a couple of Willets that went into such amazing histrionics at the sight of me that it was practically impossible to sneak up on anything…

I remember feeling complete surprise (and then panic!) the first time my boss brought me there and showed me an Oystercatcher nest in its wonderful camouflage along the shoreline of the inlet. In the weeks that followed, I got pretty good at the game of “I Spy” with the Oysercatchers and their eggs, but wisely recorded not only a nearby landmark for each nest, but its GPS coordinates as well, so that I could find it again.  All bets were off once the chicks hatched, of course, and the adults did some of their very best hiding and distraction displays once there were chicks running around. Because each of the birds there was banded, I learned to know their individual territories and knew where they were likely to hide their chicks when I came calling to check in on them. I’d set up my scope in likely places looking for chicks and, spotting the adults, would promise, “Just show me your babies and I’ll go away…” thus, I tried to honor their need for privacy by leaving them alone as much as possible. Sad days were those when a nest was inexplicably destroyed or just vanished, or when a healthy chick went missing. Fortunately, I got to watch 5 chicks hatch, fatten up and learn to fly (and hide from me!) there and will never forget the wonder of that or the surprise of coming upon a nest of hatching chicks.

Obviously, pairs that nest on public beaches have many more challenges and most didn’t fare as well as those nesting in seclusion on the dredge spoil island. I came to expect those AMOY nests to fail, sadly. And there’s nothing sadder than a pair of Oystercatchers with a just failed nest. They hang around together in odd corners of the beach, they scrape and mate and posture and call while beach-goers, unaware of their struggles, look on. Some will lay a new nest in an improbable place and do their best to keep it safe, until it, too, fails and the cycle starts all over again. Some just give up and spend the remainder of the summer without purpose, a sad reminder of our failure to be responsible stewards of the habitats these birds need to thrive..

We had just one pair that was successful on a public beach and it took them two tries. Their first nest disappeared just days before it was due to hatch. They moved 50 ft. or so away from their first attempt, laid their eggs right out on the open beach, and hatched and fledged 3 chicks! This despite near constant predation on the Least Tern colony that shared the site, a very active fishing pier and jetty, and a very popular bathing beach just steps away. I was never able to determine what caused their first nest to fail, nor did I figure out what was killing so many Least Terns at the site – I suspected feral cats – but I did trap numerous opossums and, to my great surprise, a red fox.  I could easily write a very humorous account of the many ministrations I and my interns went through trying to trap whatever predator was causing such havoc there, but suffice it to say that we were on pins and needles for most of the season. I was away at a baseball game on my day off when I got the text message that the nest had hatched. “I’m so happy for them!” my intern said. It was a huge relief, but really only the beginning of our worries!

The chicks grew up without incident; there were a few days of worry when one of the adults was hooked by a fisherman casting on the jetty, but he did the right thing and untangled the bird and removed his hook from its wing – which was scarily droopy for a few days – and it recovered. The chicks’ official fledge date was only a day or two before I left NJ to come home, but the last I heard all was well there on the beach.

Nice numbers of AMOYs winter in NJ, but many fly south (immature birds may not return to the beach or marsh where they hatched for a couple years) as far as the gulf coast of Florida. I’m hoping to see a couple NJ-banded AMOYs when I visit there during Thanksgiving break – anything to extend my season with Oystercatchers!


14 thoughts on “My season with Oystercatchers”

  1. I love reading this account of your work. It’s both uplifting and heartbreaking. Thank you for caring about all of these beautiful birds. Your efforts are part of their future.

  2. What a wonderful account of your summer with AMOYs. Can we have more photos?

    I remember being out on the dredge spoil island with you a couple times and feeling so fortunate to be able to share that with you.


  3. I would say that was a good effort and result. Mom Nature is not always real kind. You sure did a lot more there for the summer than I suspect we all thought you did! We have those rascals out here too .. always fun to see them frolic and work.

  4. Laura, I hope that your wishes come true . . . . that you get to see your New Jersey Oyster Catchers on the sunny beaches of Florida.

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