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A Bird’s Eye View: December 8, 2011

Up Close with an Oystercatcher

The oystercatcher is a 17.5-inch bird whose signature feature is a large, thick red bill. Its head is black as is the breast, which looks like a bib next to the white belly. The back is dark brown and the legs are a pale pink. Using its prominent bill with a rapid motion, the bird probes wet sand for shells and adeptly removes the meat. Until last winter I’d only seen oystercatchers a few times and at a distance.

Up Close

Last March on a Florida beach, to my surprise, at the edge of a large group of gulls, terns and skimmers is an oystercatcher. Looking desultory, the bird lifts off over the Gulf flashing a bold white wing design. Based on past experience, I incorrectly assume that is the last I’ll see of it. A few mornings later an oystercatcher is feeding at the water’s edge. It has a shell in its bill from which it seems to be extracting the insides. This sturdy avian stands in the water with head submerged as incoming waves wash over it. Soaked, the head looks even blacker and some of the feathers standing up give it a touch of wildness. In comparison, smaller sanderlings feeding nearby, chase retreating waves and run from incoming ones. Lean willets, also smaller, go into the water but aren’t as heavy duty, braving the waves as this guy. This is interesting comparative birding.

For fear that the oystercatcher may fly, I don’t get too close. Standing behind it with the sun at my back, illuminating the bird, I have an excellent view of its lower mandible, which has a deep cleft, as the bird probes the foamy white for shells. Although its name suggests otherwise, the oystercatcher plucks a small clam from the wet sands that disappear into its long, thick red bill. I start to notice the juxtaposition of the bird’s eye with its bill. The eye with its thick red rim surrounding a yellow core and black center resembles a pub’s dartboard and the bill a dart. Avian art nouveau.

Avian Magic

The oystercatcher walks away from the incoming waves, places a shell on the wet sand and probes it, pushing the shell into the sand where it disappears. Soon the bird is back in the water facing the waves. Now the oystercatcher starts to walk down the beach toward me. I won’t take the binoculars off the bird, as I want to see it as closely as possible. I also don’t want the bird to see my eyes looking directly at it, for fear it will fly. The oystercatcher gets closer and closer until it looks almost gigantic. I can’t help but lower the binoculars but the hungry bird ignores my presence as it walks past at a distance of seven to eight feet. Perhaps this is because the oystercatcher is energetically feeding and I’ve been a constant, non-threatening presence for a while. Still, I can hardly believe this proximity, as the closest I’ve ever come to one before is waving distance.

The bird now shakes its short tail and moves away from the water to the wet, shell-strewn sand. Soon it’s taking a “bird bath,” then shakes itself free of water. Flapping its wings the oystercatcher rises straight up several inches and comes back down. On dry sand now, the oystercatcher raises a wing and preens itself with zest and energy. Within seconds the oystercatcher launches itself over the waves. I look at my watch; it’s been 25 minutes—25 minutes of avian magic. I’m going to brag about this to friends. The tide is coming in now leaving royal terns and laughing gulls on increasingly smaller islands. Everything seems right in the world as I’m on a high from the oystercatcher.

“Right-handed” Birds?

I assume that was the last I’ve seen of this shy bird but again I couldn’t be more wrong. Over the next several days, three oystercatchers come to feed on this lightly traveled stretch of beach while I watch in splendid isolation. At any one time I’m close to only one of the birds as they give each other plenty of feeding room and not all three come each day. They feed seemingly all day with brief intermissions. Oystercatchers’ digestive systems apparently can handle only small amounts of food at a time. Then, they rest.

Most of the time the birds feed with their heads and bills straightforward but I casually take note that some of the time, they feed with their heads to the right and bills facing back toward their center. Without realizing it I’m unconsciously thinking about this curious fact. One morning upon opening my eyes, I wonder if the birds’ are “right-handed?” Later I watch one closely. When not feeding from the center it occasionally feeds from the left but overwhelmingly from the right. I want to see if more than one bird feeds “right-handed.” Assuming the birds will be here tomorrow, I decide to go then. Inexplicably and enigmatically they don’t appear again. The oystercatcher show is over and magic is gone.

But what a show it’s been! I want to see them again this winter up close to determine if they are “right-handed.” But in the meantime I have one enduring memory. While walking away from an oystercatcher I looked back to see it in perpetual motion on glistening wet sands near the foamy remains of incoming and retreating waves. The scene incorporates the bird, the place and the thrill of discovering it. For now it’ll do.