joe reynoldsFor sure one of the coolest looking shorebirds to call New York Harbor home during the spring and summer is the American Oystercatcher. Of all the shorebirds that hangout along the shore, this one is the most unmistakable and easiest to identify. Take a look and you’ll see what I mean.

It’s a rather large bird with bold black, brown and white feathers. It has pale pinkish legs with sunny yellow eyes and rosy orange-red eye rings. Its most brilliant feature, though, is the bird’s long bright red-orange bill. No other bird around these parts has a groovy looking bill like that.

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It’s a crafty feathered fisherman. The bird will use its long bill to clasp a clam or oyster before it can close up. The bird will then stab its bill into the shell to cut the strong muscle that holds the two halves of the shell together, and then it will stab the soft critter inside to enjoy a tasty mollusk meal.

Spend some time observing an oystercatcher and you will quickly notice the bird uses its strong, sharp, dagger-like beak to prey open more than just oysters, which are hard to find in the harbor since populations of oysters are low. Clams, mussels and other shellfish and sea stars are on the menu along with worms and small sea creatures of the intertidal zone. american oystercatcher 2

The good news is the bird is back in town. Not just one either, but several oystercatchers have been seen this past week flying into local beaches. Some migrate far from wintering territories along the coastal strip of the southeastern United States. Others might migrate shorter distances preferring to spend the winter in South Jersey or Delaware. Oystercatchers return to wherever they can find a safe place to rest and eat.

The same must be said for their breeding territories. Oystercatchers more often than not seem to return to the same breeding beaches to raise a family. As long as the nesting site is safe with a rich abundance of food.

Yet, breeding was not the first thing on the minds of many oystercatchers that just migrated into the harbor estuary. These poor birds were hungry. Several pairs were observed running along the shore looking for food. Luckily the tide cycle was perfect for foraging, between half tide and ebb. As the tide receded, the birds foraged among the wet sand and shallow water, searching for food by sight. Finding a clam here and crab there.

Soon the birds will get down to business and begin breeding activities. Oystercatchers prefer to make nests on long, wide sandy beaches, but will also nest in tidal mudflats, wetlands, or even dredge spoil pits. The birds favor sites that are near groups of nesting gulls, terns and other shorebirds, but always keeping their distance. Oystercatchers are gregarious, but highly territorial. They will make their characteristic “kleep, kleep. kleep” call or different types of noises to any critter, especially other oystercatchers, who get to too close to their nesting territory.

While numbers of oystercatchers declined dramatically in the past due to hunting and habitat loss, there are dozens of nesting pairs around New York Harbor today due to improved conservation efforts to protect dune and beach ecosystems, especially at well-protected parks including Sandy Hook and Breezy Point, both part of Gateway National Recreation Area.

Despite these efforts, more needs to be done. The bird is still struggling to survive in many seaside locations. The American oystercatcher is a species of special concern in several coastal states including New York and New Jersey, and is listed as a bird of national conservation concern by the Audubon Society. In addition to protecting more beach habitat, we need conduct more research on how oystercatchers live and feed towards creating a comprehensive conservation effort. This will help in the slow recovery of the truly unique looking American oystercatcher.

To view more pictures, video, or stories of wildlife around Sandy Hook Bay, Raritan Bay, and Lower New York Bay, please visit my nature blog, NY Harbor Nature at

American Oystercatchers use their long, bladelike, orange bills to catch shellfish unawares, seizing them before they can close up. frequently walk or run rather than flying. They walk across shellfish beds and when they encounter one that is partially open, they jab their bill into the shell and sever the strong muscle that clamps the shells shut. The technique is not without its risks though—oystercatchers do sometimes drown after a tightly rooted mussel clamps down on their bills and holds the bird in place until the tide comes in. The birds also feed by carrying loose shellfish out of the water and hammering at the shell, or by probing for buried soft-shell or razor clams the way some other shorebirds do. Courting birds tend to walk together and make a single piping note. This progresses to leaning over, extending and lowering the neck, and running side by side while calling. Eventually the pair may burst into flight and fly in tight formation around their territory, sometimes joined by birds from adjoining territories.