Hart Beat by Hart Rufe

First published August 18, 2012 ... Contact Hart at hartrufe@gmail.com

American Oystercatcher

American Oystercatchers are found along the East Coast of the U.S., and along some parts of the West Coast.


It’s easy to visualize flycatchers, they swoop out from an open perch to catch some hapless passing bug, bee, or butterfly and return to their branch to bolt it down and await the next one. But Oystercatchers - how do they “catch” oysters? It’s not as though oysters are elusive or likely to dart away from the stalking predators. American OystercatcherIn fact, they spend their entire adult life clinging for all they are worth to their “bed” waiting for just the right oysterman or oystercatcher to liberate them to their destiny.

Thus, it seems to me, “Oyster-finder” or “Oyster-eater” or “Oyster-lover” would be more appropriate names for such a bird. Come to think of it, the moniker might apply to me as I stalk the tasty little critters at the Samson Street Oyster House or the Tiki Raw Bar.

American Oystercatchers (left) are uncommon residents of beaches from New England to Florida, including a few along the Indian River in St Lucie County. There is also a separate, but disconnected, population of the same American Oystercatcher species on the Pacific coast of Black OystercatcherMexico along the Baja Peninsula extending almost to San Diego. From San Diego north to Alaska the Black Oystercatcher (right)chases down the tasty mollusks instead of the American Oystercatcher.

We even saw them on the rocky shores of islands in the Bering Sea. Sometimes, in a very small overlap area just north of San Diego, rare hybrids of the two species occur. It was our good fortune to spot one such rarity in the Ventura, CA harbor on our return from the Channel Islands National Park boat trip.

In the photos the difference between the American and Black Oystercatchers is obvious: the American has white undersides extending from a sharp line below the neck all the way under the tail, and a longer, sharper bill. The Black, as you might expect, is all black.

The hybrid American/Black Oystercatcher (below, left) has a smudged black breast smeared into the white belly and a dark black flank between the belly and the back, same as the Black Oystercatcher, but not seen on the American.Hybrid Oystercatcher

You might also have noticed that the American Oystercatcher has a long bill shaped exactly like an oyster knife used in shucking oysters. The Black Oystercatcher has a shorter, rounder bill used more to pry smaller mollusks from rocks and crevasses and force them open. Oysters are more common on the east coast and therefore the longer bill works better for the American Oystercatcher. It would be interesting to study whether the west coast version of the American Oystercatcher, where oysters are not nearly as common, has evolved a shorter rounder bill like its Black cousin.

Either way, I still prefer mine on the half shell served on a bed of ice. (8/18/2012)

Oystercatchers Black Oystercatcher

Hybrid and Black Oystercatchers

Black Oystercatcher

(Click photos for larger versions)