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Oystercatchers Bring Up Family Along Jersey Shore

There is something undeniably joyful about watching wild animals raise a family. Probably because it's something we can relate to, whether as a mom, dad, or child. We are all part of a basic social unit consisting of a parent or parents and at least one youngster.

Watching wildlife is also fun. A unique opportunity to see wild nature within the sprawling New York metropolitan region where people are more likely to see strip malls, tall buildings, parking lots, and piecemeal grids of grass and asphalt than we are to see wide open spaces. It's a memorable experience.

Over the summer, I had the occasion to observe several mating pairs of American Oystercatchers, a large shorebird, raise families along the northern Jersey Shore, located  downstream from New York City. A few nests were found on small, remote islands in the Navesink River, a tributary of Sandy Hook Bay and part of the Lower New York Bay estuary. Here, the birds nested largely wild and free. The islands could only be accessed by the public via kayak. Others nests were located along ocean beaches, where the nests were managed and often fenced off from the public by government officials to protect the beach-nesting birds from ever encroaching beachgoers and sunbathers.

No matter where the nests were located, though, it was an irresistible temptation to watch wildlife. A fascinating summer show free of charge and brought to life by Mother Nature.

American Oystercatchers are an easy shorebird to spot with their distinctive black, white and dark brown plumage and pale legs. Its long bill, however, is the most distinctive feature of this bird. It's a bright five-inch long yellow-orange bill, which helps the bird forage for their primary food source - bivalves, such as oysters and clams.

Oystercatchers will use their long bill and tongue to force open bivalves. They will sever a mollusk's nerves to prevent closure and to enable the bird to take out the meaty and tasty flesh. It's an amazing and unique shorebird that brings its own knife to feast upon shellfish.

If you don't see an Oystercatcher at first, no worries, you will surely hear one. American Oystercatchers are noisy shorebirds. One is near when hear its loud, raucous, shrill call that sounds like "kleep, kleep, kleep," over and over again.  

Unlike many other beach-nesting birds, including terns and skimmers, Oystercatchers are solitary nesters that do not nest with other oystercatchers. Mom and dad will raise a family by themselves in open or sparsely vegetated beaches in the upper dune section that are in close proximity to more heavily vegetated areas, where chicks will move about soon after hatching. The chicks will use the vegetation for protection from the hot sun and as cover from the hungry eyes of predators.

The breeding pairs I observed either raised one or two chicks this summer. In May, speckled, creamy colored eggs were laid in a slight sandy depression, sometimes lined with pebbles or bits of shells. Now and then I would watch the mom leave the nest to expose the eggs to the late spring sun and possible passive solar incubation. Remarkably the first I ever have seen of this activity.

In just about 3 to 4 weeks, tiny, downy feathered chicks were hatched. For the next two months after hatching, the parents would feed and protect the young until the chicks have the skills and jaw strength to open their own bivalves. It was interesting to watch with binoculars in hand as mom oystercatcher would often spend her time protecting the chick while dad would often spend his time foraging for food, the bivalve of choice being mussels, which can be found in abundance in local tidal waters.

Then sometime in late July, first flight took place. The young oystercatchers would gain the knowledge and courage to use their wings to fly over a beach. Birds learning how to be birds.

Sadly, not all the observed oystercatcher chicks survived to adulthood. Some were weak and taken down by disease, others were taken as a meal by predators. I have no idea what happened to one or two other small birds, they just disappeared, maybe a night-time raid by predator or drowned by a nasty storm.

This is troublesome, because every chick is valuable. American Oystercatchers are listed in New Jersey as special conservation concern. According to the non-profit Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, this species is considered to be in decline in New Jersey with less than 350 breeding pairs. In nearby Delaware, the oystercatcher is listed as an endangered species with only about 25 estimated breeding pairs. Oystercatchers are considered rare on the East Coast, and listed as endangered or threatened in several mid-Atlantic states.

No surprise why oystercatcher numbers are in decline, it's a stressful life being a beach-nesting bird. Over-development along coastal areas has destroyed or severely limited breeding habitat and increasing recreational activities by people have disrupted reproduction. Swelling populations of more aggressive gulls has led to competition for nesting sites, and young oystercatchers are severely preyed upon by raccoons, foxes, crows, and gulls which are attracted to areas by increasing amounts of human garbage and foodstuff leftover by beachgoers.

What's more, sea level rise and the increasing amount of intense storms both due to global warming are threatening the way of life for many beach-nesting birds, including oystercatchers. They simply are running out of room in urban-suburban coastal areas where coastal development doesn't allow the space for birds to  migrate inland to nest and raise a family in safety. Even birds that are not officially listed as endangered have an uncertain future if their habitat goes away.

This breeding season seemed to be an exceptionally harsh one for many beach-nesting birds. Higher than normal spring tides washed away quite a few nests early in the season. In addition, a wet and cooler than normal spring was followed by a hot and stormy summer. Not the easiest conditions to raise a child in an exposed, windswept unsympathetic environment.

Still, with a bit of luck, the tiny oystercatcher chicks that did survive this summer should be hardy enough to carry the species forward and tell the story of how difficult it is to be a beach-nesting bird to their own children. It will take about 3 or 4 years before this year's young will be mature enough to raise a family of their own.

With additional conservation and habitat restoration efforts, the American Oystercatcher population will hopefully recover and these wild shorebirds will be able to raise a family along the Jersey Shore for centuries to come to the delight of many people.

For more information about the American Oystercatcher population in New Jersey, please check out the website for the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey at http://www.conservewildlifenj.org/species/spotlight/oystercatcher/

To help beach-nesting birds including American Oystercatchers, survive along the Jersey Shore please help take care of the beach by:

- Encouraging coastal municipalities to play an active positive role in the protection of New Jersey’s endangered beach nesting birds and the habitat on which they depend.

- Preventing pollution from getting on the sand and in the water.

- Eliminating plastic waste.

- Properly disposing of your fishing lines, nets, balloons, and any other litter at all times.

- Encouraging others to respect the marine environment and educating yourself about the oceans and marine life. All life on Earth is connected to the ocean and its inhabitants. The more you learn about the issues facing the ocean, the more you’ll want to help ensure its health—then share that knowledge to educate and inspire others.

For more information, pictures and year-round sightings of wildlife in or near Sandy Hook Bay, please check out my blog entitled, Nature on the Edge of New York City at http://www.natureontheedgenyc.com


This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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