24 July 2011 by Julienne du Toit

Return of the Oystercatcher

I still remember a time, about 10 years ago, when you hardly ever saw an African black oystercatcher. Birders would vibrate with excitement when they hove into view along a rocky shore - quite distinctive birds in their neat black feathers, orange-red beak, red legs and weird yellow and red eyes.

Nowadays, African oystercatchers are halfway to becoming common - not a population trend one often sees at present.

I was driving close to Danger Point lighthouse near Gansbaai recently. At one particular cove, a mess of kelp had washed up, and it was a stinking to high heaven. The bugs were all over it, and so were the birds - among them some oystercatchers. I realised things had changed when the birding friend I was with started to get far more excited about sighting the fairly common turnstone.

Two major factors have led to the rise in oystercatcher numbers. One of the most significant was the banning of offroad vehicles from beaches from 2002 onwards. The removing of this habitat disturbance seems to have helped breeding success - quite dramatically in some areas.

The species also has access to more food, thanks to something of a mixed blessing - an invasive mussel called Mytilus galloprovincialis has made its appearance in the past decade or so. It outcompetes the local mussel, which is bad. But the increased food availability has almost certainly boosted African black oystercatcher numbers. Which is good.

I love sitting on a beach and watching them. They usually work in pairs, and by the way, don’t only go for oysters and mussels. They’re fond of any kind of crustacean or whelk, and don’t turn up their beaks at reef worms either.

Best of all is their complete but casual awareness of the surf. They’re constantly working where the waves break, and seem to know without really looking which waves they should dodge and which ones don’t threaten them. They embody the Zen of the tidal zone.

Category: Wildlife

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