Felix Aldred follows a family of oystercatchers
Oystercatchers are wading birds found along coasts everywhere, including Suffolk. This unique species can be identified by its black and white plumage and its long orange bill, used to feed on intertidal prey such as shellfish and worms.
The Eurasian Oystercatcher exclusively lives in Europe, Asia and North Africa, typically migrating south during winter. They have a wide variety of coastal habitats including salt marshes, coastal sand and shingle beaches, as well as river estuaries. Some populations live more inland in areas such
as reservoirs. Oystercatchers survive up to 35 years in the wild. They have a varied diet, which differs depending on its habitat. In rocky, coastal regions they feed on molluscs and crustaceans, in river estuaries and reservoirs they feed on worms and other invertebrates.
They also successfully prey on mussels and other shellfish, using the hard tip of their bright orange bill – the heaviest of all the wading birds – to force open the shells.
Despite the name, oysters are not usually part of the oystercatcher’s diet. They also use their hard, bony bill to defend territory and fend off predators.
Oystercatchers have a distinctive call, high pitched and loud. Adults are in constant communication and the call between the adults and young enables adults to feed their young and know where they are at all times. When danger arises – a gull flying overhead or someone getting too close – they create a distressed alarm.
I followed a new family of oystercatchers along a river estuary in Suffolk for six weeks, observing and photographing as the chicks grew from leaving the nest, to first flight. The nest was built on a disused wooden jetty along the river estuary. It was a safe nesting ground, but vulnerable to passing fishing boats and fish restaurants. Three chicks hatched and the next day were on the river bank.
The next six weeks would determine their survival, at which point, they would be fully grown and able to fly. Along the journey to adulthood, chicks went up against gulls, other oystercatchers and human disturbance, as well as obstacles such as rope and rubble.
After just five days on the ground, three chicks became two. Although the chick’s death could’ve been from competition from its siblings, it is more likely
‘When worms were caught they were washed in the river, thought to remove parasites’
At such a young age, these chicks are smaller than a tennis ball, and easy pickings for a gull flying overhead.
Oystercatchers usually produce three or four eggs during the breeding season but it’s rare that even two survive.
Over the next few weeks, the remaining two chicks lived along the muddy estuary, constantly fed with worms from their parents. The adult oystercatchers took turns at feeding while the other watched overhead or defended the territory.
When worms were caught they were washed in the river before feeding which is thought to remove parasites. With an abundance of food, these chicks changed every day. After four weeks, the chicks started to lose their fluffy coat and their full plumage came through.
During this period a lot of time was spent preening and removing old feathers. Chicks bathed in the river and used their bills to shed those feathers.
Flying is a major step in ensuring survival. With some flying practice along the bank, and with full plumage, the chicks were able to fly for the first time after six weeks, although they may stay an extra six months with the family before leaving and finding a mate.
There are an estimated 284,000-350,000 pairs of Eurasian oystercatchers in the wild, but this number is decreasing and, according to the ICUN Red List, this is a near-threatened species, thanks to overfishing of shellfish and disappearing mussel beds.
Other factors include habitat degradation, human disturbance, coastal erosion and pollution. Unfortunately, currently there are no conservation actions to protect this unique species from becoming endangered. N