Bird bits: Spying on the black oystercatcher

Black oystercatchers prefer habitat consisting of rocky shores, reefs and islands. They nest in beach gravel, often near the grass line, according to Bob Armstrong's "Guide to the Birds of Alaska."

These black oystercatcher chicks left their beach slump nest as soon as their down had dried. They were a long time in their hard shells — close to a month and the eggs had survived being submerged by high tides.


Now, the fledglings were hanging with their parents and this would be the case for a month and a half, as they learned how to forage. If they migrate, it won’t be far and spring will likely see them back in the same area.

Where might you anticipate seeing a bird with short wader legs and toes only slightly webbed? Ah, you peeked at the picture.

Yes, a shorebird! Rocky, intertidal shorelines are where the black oystercatcher can be found. They prefer sheltered nooks along a coastline, as well.

But what about that stout 3 1/2-inch bill that looks like a red pry bar? Think about the menu it might suggest. Yes, mollusks. The pry bar dislodges and opens mussels, limpets and barnacles off of rocks and stabs worms and crabs in the muck between the rocks.

Look for these birds at low tide when their food is most accessible and plentiful.

When spying these birds, you might first hear a loud “wheeps” or you might spot that sharp contrast of a black object and a slash of red. The body is dark, the head and neck darker. Red skin rings yellow eyes. Legs and feet are pink.

The black oystercatcher’s nesting and foraging areas are the same areas favored by humans seeking recreation. In fact, the experts with the U.S. Forest Service on the Chugach National Forest are currently doing survey work to study that overlap and how it might affect these shorebirds.

These birds aren’t particularly shy. Pam Bergeson, kayaking with friends in the Glacier Bay area, observed several black oystercatcher families. One parent was aggressively defending the family territory, zooming into the air to noisily intercept incoming birds. Another parent used a passive defense; it hunkered silently between the humans and the chicks. Bergeson said she was surprised to look down and find a yellow, red rimmed eye staring up at her from only five feet away!

Did it niggle in your memory that oystercatchers look black and white? Farther south, the American oystercatcher bears that exact coloration.


• Patricia Wherry is the education chairperson for the Juneau Audubon Society. Contact her at


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