With orange eye, darker eye-ring and astonishing red-orange bill, black oystercatchers might be described as a bird in a Halloween outfit. And then there are those fleshy legs and feet. When we recently saw two on beach rocks, we both stopped and said the same thing: whowee! There are around 400 oystercatchers in the Puget Sound area, and they tend to nest on grassy beaches without trees nearby (think predators overhead). Oystercatchers don’t migrate, but in winter might form loose flocks. It’s reported that all the San Juan oystercatchers get together in a sort of winter confab. Listen for their loud, piercing whistle, which to me implies wild rocky coasts like no other sound.
If you notice that orange bill, it’s not just long, but strangely-shaped like a sideways chisel. It begins as a triangle at the skull, but immediately slims down to a vertical pry bar all the way out to the blunt tip. Why? Because these birds make their living prying shells off rocks. With one stab of that bill on a partially-open shell’s adductor muscle, it’s toast, and with the mussel open the oystercatcher can pull out the contents – dinner on the half-shell. This is often accomplished in the wave zone because wet mussels are already open a tad to filter water. I’ve watched oystercatchers working limpet beds with a quick: pry off and stab, pry and stab – gulp, gulp. Pure proficiency.
Larry Eifert paints and writes about wild places. His work is in many national parks across America – and at larryeifert.com.