Eurasian Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus)

Birds: Oystercatcher

We heard them before we say them in Glacier Bay, Alaska. The cackle was so loud, it competed with the crashing waves with its intensity. The calls continued to dusk and where haunting in their loneliness and pain. When we finally spotted the bird, it was the white torso and the orange beak which stood out the most. Our sea kayak guide told us these Oystercatchers were everywhere.

Oystercatchers are a group of waders forming the small but hearty family known as Haematopodidae. The family has a single genus, Haematopus. They are found across the globe on the coasts. They are nearly everywhere, excerpt for the polar regions and some tropical regions of Africa and South East Asia.

The American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus), occasionally called the “American pied oystercatcher,” is a member of this interesting family. The species was named by English naturalist, Mark Catesby, who spotted the bird in 1731. It was feasting on some oysters in the surf, so he named them “sea pie” oystercatchers. The current population of American oystercatchers is estimated to be 43,000. The bird is marked by its brown and white body, its long, thick orange beak, and its distinctive black and white plumage. The head and breast are black and the back, wings and tail are greyish-black. The underparts of the bird are white, as are feathers on the inner part of the wings, which become visible during flight. The oystercatchers’ irises are yellow and the eyes have orange orbital rings. Its legs are pink. 

Oystercatchers feed largely on mollusks (such as oysters, clams, and mussels), attacking them as the tide ebbs, when their shells are exposed and still partially open. These birds nest on the ground, usually laying their two to four eggs in the sand.

According to the ornithology texts, there are about seven distinct species of oystercatchers. Among them is the European Oystercatcher (pictured above: (H. ostralegus)), of Asia, Europe, and Africa,. These birds are different in that they have no brown, but dark black above and white beneath. The Black Oystercatcher (H. bachmani), of western North America, and the Sooty Oystercatcher (H. fuliginosus), of Australia, are all dark except for the pinkish legs.