Speaking of Nature: Wondrous story of American oystercatcher No. 1105-16724

  • This photo shows the oystercatcher with a live mussel in its beak. This bird and “his” mate spent a lot of time on this mussel bed during low tide and I saw each one of them eat several live mussels. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/BILL DANIELSON

Published: 8/31/2021 3:19:21 PM

In 1988, at the tender age of 20, I spent the summer field season on an Island in Maryland’s Chincoteague Bay. I worked for the Maryland Colonial Waterbird Project and I spend the entire summer capturing, banding and tracking all sorts of birds: terns, willets, black skimmers, gulls ospreys and anything else we could get our hands on. It was my first exposure to field research and it was absolutely magical.

Being something of a homebody from Western Massachusetts, the setting down in Maryland was exciting. I was in a new place, surrounded by new birds in new habitats and I spent every single day getting around by boat, rather than by car. It was pure adventure, but the banding of the birds was something that triggered my “inner scientist.” The idea of assigning numbers to different individuals and then keeping detailed records so their movements could be tracked was irresistible to me. To this day I simply love collecting, organizing and analyzing data.

So when I saw that oystercatcher with the leg bands I was aquiver with excitement. When I discovered the American Oystercatcher Working Group’s website and saw that sightings could be recorded, I was wound up even further. I filled out the data form and then after submitting it I received an email stating that my sighting would be processed and I would be informed if it was “legit.”

I didn’t have to wait long before I received the confirmation email I was so desperate to see and my head almost exploded when I read the following: “You will be able to view all records of this bird by clicking on this link.” That last word, “link” was an active web link and when I clicked it and looked at the data that had been shared with me (including the full band number; 1105-16724) I momentarily lost consciousness. I had been able to see the digits “1” and “6” in a couple of my photos. Holy Moly!

Are you ready for this? The American oystercatcher that I had sighted on Aug. 14, 2021, was captured and banded on Martha’s Vineyard on June 17, 2009! The site of capture was Maciel Marine in the town of Vineyard Haven. Anyone familiar with Martha’s Vineyard may recognize a restaurant called “The Net Result.” Basically, the bird was captured in Lagoon Pond, which is right behind the restaurant. I was just there!

Unfortunately, there was no information on the age of the bird when it was captured (my right eye is twitching just a little bit) and so I cannot give you an exact age for this bird. However, it is amazing that this bird is at least 12 years old. A quick web search informed me that the oldest American oystercatcher on record was 23 years and 10 months old when it was last sighted, so “my” oystercatcher may still be just a kid. But wait, there’s more.

For a kid, this bird has logged some serious miles. In May 2010 he was seen on Cedar Key down in Florida. He was seen there again in July 2010, so I am going to hypothesize that he was a non-breeding juvenile who was not motivated to migrate north. He was seen 10 more times on Cedar Key between 2011 and March 2012, but in April 2012 there was a new location logged: Martha’s Vineyard. This time the bird was sighted in the town of Aquinnah, which is exactly where I saw him. This suggests even more strongly that the bird had matured and finally flown north to breed.

Since his first return trip to Martha’s Vineyard our friend the oystercatcher has made annual trips from Cedar Key to Aquinnah. Site fidelity is amazing in some species and this guy is no exception. He has had a lot of luck spending his winters down on the northwest coast of the Florida Panhandle and his summers in the general area of Lobsterville Beach and West Basin (you can see one if you stand on the beach at the other) for the past nine years. And it wasn’t difficult to see why he liked Aquinnah so much.

The harbor at West Basin is tidal with an undeveloped stretch of salt marsh and sand beaches that the local birds have all to themselves. Basically, no human presence at all except for the occasional passing boat, which is very different from a person passing on foot. At low tide there is an extensive area of sand that is encrusted with mussels, which the oystercatchers ate with relish while I was observing, though I might have chosen cocktail sauce myself (quietly laughing at my own stupid joke).

The takeaway here is that the natural world is full of wondrous stories that science is helping to shed light on. American oystercatcher No. 1105-16724 has made the 2,678-mile round trip from Cedar Key to Aquinnah nine times during his life and he may do it 10 more times for all I know. The only reason we know this is because a scientist captured, banded and recorded information on this bird and then citizen scientists (bird watchers) saw the bands and reported the bird’s location. Anyone with binoculars or a camera can do this, including you! So the next time you head to the coast remember to keep your eyes peeled. You never know what you might see.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 24 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.


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