RIO GRANDE VALLEY, Texas – With its striking bright orange bill, yellow-gold eye ringed in red and elegant black and white feathering, the American oystercatcher is a stunning sight.
There are estimated to be no more than 20 of these rare birds stalking the oyster beds of the Lower Laguna Madre, and this pair frequents shallows around Bahia Grande.
The unique bill of the oystercatcher is long, sharp and chisel-shaped. It has been described as “nature’s original oyster knife.”
Prowling estuaries and feeding primarily on oysters, clams and mussels the impressively billed specialist is the only bird in their coastal environment with the ability to pry open large bivalves like oysters.
However, oystercatchers don’t always secure a tasty morsel unscathed, as occasionally a shellfish clamps down on the birds bill. If the oyster is secured snugly to its bed and the tide rolls in, then it can be disastrous for the snared bird.
On this day, no such bad luck prevails as the pair busily probes and chisels out their sustenance.
While oysters are plentiful throughout much of the Lower Laguna Madre, safe nesting sites are scarce. Oystercatchers simply scrape out a spot in the sand and lay their eggs, and nests are vulnerable to human disturbance and predation by gulls.
In an attempt to learn more about the area’s oystercatchers this male was banded last year.
Oystercatchers can live for more than 20 years, and one pair of bonded birds was documented defending the same territory for two decades.
While there are more oystercatchers on the middle and upper Texas coasts, they are a species of concern as coastal development and loss of water quality threaten their existence.