Bird Notes : Oystercatcher

The Eurasian Oystercatcher
Haematopus ostralegus

Just how do you catch an Oyster? They can’t really run away and if you’re a British Oystercatcher chances are you’ve never even encountered one in real life. The name comes from it’s American cousins, mainly from the deep south, blessed with a spicy bouillabaisse diet. In olden days Britain we used to call them “Sea Pie” (referring to the black and white markings rather than an actual pie) but it seems a pity we passed on the very British opportunity of having a bird we could legitimately have called Winklepicker, Cocklecruncher or Musselmuncher. 

You’ll usually hear an Oystercatcher before seeing it, the distinctive piping call soon alerting you to it’s presence as it flies on rapid wing beats low across the shore or fields where it will be foraging for cockles, mussels, worms, crustaceans and insects. They use their long bills to probe into rock pools on the shore line and the soft earth of inland meadows but - certainly as I’ve witnessed in the towns of northern Scotland - can become a little confused in an urban environment: There’s something truly tragic about seeing an Oystercatcher trying to break through the tarmac of a local authority carpark to get at the non-existent cockles beneath.


The British population is very similar to that in  Norway at about 110,000 pairs augmented by continental birds, some from Iceland, increasing the number in winter to about 340,000.  This figure represents around 45% of the European population. The longest lived bird recorded was just over 40 years old. Ringed as a chick in 1970 it was last caught in the same place, by a ringer, on The Wash in 2010. Incredibly it was never seen away from the site in the intervening years.


FAMILY Haematopodidae (Oystercatchers)
HABITAT Open countryside with farms, ponds, meadows usually near buildings for nesting
SIZE Length, 40-45 cm
DIET Molluscs and earthworms
BREEDS April-July, 1 Brood
NEST A scrape in sand or amongst pebbles
EGGS 2-3. Cream with brown spots
RANGE Particularly northern Britain, also Scandinavia and Iceland
OLD NAMES Bride’s page; Sea-magpie; Olive; Oyster plover; Mere-pie; Sea pie


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