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With A Bright Orange Bill, American Oystercatchers Reward Close Observation

For the past few years I have been lucky enough to work with one of my favorite birds, the American Oystercatcher. Many of you most likely have seen one of these birds on a beach, or in a marsh, here on the Cape, the Islands, or on the South Coast.

These black-and-white birds sport a bright orange carrot-like bill. Often you will hear one of their raucous calls even before you see it!

I belong to the American Oystercatcher Working Group which is a coalition of folks from Texas, along the Gulf of Mexico, and up the Atlantic seaboard who have been studying these birds with the hope of insuring their survival. They have a terrific web site where you can learn lots more about these birds.

One of the ways researchers have gained knowledge about the life and times of oystercatchers is by attaching colored bands to the upper portions of their legs. These bands have numbers and letters on them which will allow you to identify individual birds. These bands and codes can usually be seen with binoculars or a spotting scope. Thus the birds can be observed and identified without having to disturb them. 

Through this color-banding program and other studies, we now know that one American Oystercatcher lived to be 17 years old! Most however usually have an average a life span of 10 years.

We also know that many of the birds that nest in our area spend the winter in Florida... not a bad deal! One individual banded in 2005 with a yellow band and a black code E2 was seen on March 19, 2012 in Cedar Key, Florida. Then it was found back on its traditional nesting area on Nantucket on March 23. That's just four days later!

Credit Vernon Laux

American Oystercatchers typically lay three sand-colored, spotted eggs in a small indent in the sand called a "scrape". The eggs hatch about 27 days later. Some eggs and young are lost to storms and some to predators such as gulls, crows, fox, loose dogs, and feral cats.

When hatched, the chicks are precocial - that is, they are up and out of the nest within a day. They are fed shucked clams, oysters, and other sea creatures by their parents until they are about a month old.

Young birds may not travel north from their wintering grounds and breed until they are about three years old. Yesterday on Nantucket I saw a young oystercatcher I banded in 2011 on Tuckernuck. It's back!

So the next time you see an American Oystercatcher, take a good look at its legs to check for bands. If you can, note the band's color, and the code, or snap a photo of it and report it to the American Oystercatcher Working Group's web site. Then you can learn "who" this bird is and where it has been!

Edie Ray of Nantucket is our guest ornithologist for this week's Bird Report.