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AAn odd thing about African black oystercatchers, apart from their somewhat bizarre appearance, is the fact that they almost never eat oysters. They hunt for food at the very edge of the sea, mostly in the intertidal zone (the area between tidemarks) along rocky shores. They eat mussels and limpets. Whelks, worms and periwinkles are all welcome too. But, somehow, oysters remain mostly ignored.
In fact, it would be more accurate to call these coastal birds 'limpet snatchers'. On one offshore island alone, they’ve been found to remove an astounding 2.8-million limpets every year from only 2.5 km of rocky shore.
If you tried to remove a limpet, you’d need a chisel, a hammer and some serious muscle. So how does an oystercatcher – weighing around 700 grams and armed only with a sharp red bill – pull it off? Skilfully sidestepping breaking waves, the oystercatcher approaches its unwitting prey from behind (limpets can sense danger) and delivers a quick stab to the edge of its shell, knocking it from the rock.
After watching them for a while, you’ll develop respect for the way in which African black oystercatchers operate. A bonus is that they’re easy to see – fairly large with pitch-black feathers, dull pink legs, red beaks and red-rimmed eyes. They take to flying above the breakers and calling out, making a ‘kee-weeep’ noise.
Oystercatchers usually mate for life – a life that is comparatively long. They can live for up to 35 years. One of the factors limiting their numbers is their habit of breeding on beaches in summer, which is peak holiday season. The subsequent disturbances mean that eggs or hatchlings are sometimes compromised. This has eased somewhat since vehicles were prohibited on South African beaches in 2001.
If you’re a birder, make sure you add the African black oystercatcher to your list – and your camera reel.
TTravel tips & planning info
Who to contact
Tel: +27 (0)87 087 9262
How to get here
You’ll see African black oystercatchers from Lambert’s Bay on the West Coast to Mazeppa Bay on the Wild Coast in the east. Look out for rocky shores.
Best time to visit
African black oystercatchers can be spotted throughout the year. Avoid disturbing them in summer.
Around the area
When you’ve had your fill of watching the African black oystercatcher catch its breakfast, take a drive to visit the penguins of Boulders Beach near Simon’s Town.
What to pack
Essential birding equipment will always include a good pair of binoculars and a local bird book. If you plan on being outside in the sun, make sure you pack a good sunblock and a hat as well.
Where to stay
There is plenty of accommodation along South Africa’s majestic coastline. Make sure to book a room with a view.
What to eat
Make like an oystercatcher and feast on delicious shellfish at the Brass Bell in Kalk Bay.
Remember that vehicles are not allowed on beaches in South Africa. Enjoy a leaisurely walk in good company.
What it will cost
Watching the oystercatchers is free of charge.