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by Stan Tekiela
May 2, 2022
Last week while leading a photo workshop in warm and sunny Florida, I was walking down a long stretch of beach with my group of photographers in tow. The sun had just come up spreading a warm yellowish glow across the sand and the crashing waves at the shore. A warm breeze blew in from the ocean keeping any bugs away. It was a picture-perfect morning.
The very first bird we spotted were two tiny Snowy Plovers standing in the sand. These beautiful little birds seemed to be enjoying the tranquil moment that the morning sun was offering. The entire group was able to lay down in the warm sand to capture some eye-level images. It is estimated that there are only about 31,000 breeding pairs of Snowy Plovers in the wild. In 1993 it was listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. We were all feeling very appreciative to have spent a few minutes with these uncommon birds and capture some amazing images.
We continued our walk down the beach to a long sandy hook that curled back towards the shore. The wind was picking up as the sun rose higher in the sky. The wind produced perfect conditions for several Osprey to hover over the ocean, looking for fish in the water below. When they spotted a fish, they would drop from the sky and plunge into the water feet first, grabbing the fish. One Osprey caught such a large fish that it could barely lift it from the water. It flew low across the water to the beach where it landed in the sand and enjoyed the fruits of its labor.
Two hours into the morning walk on the beach we came to the end of the sandy hook. We couldn’t go any further, but we didn’t need to either because we found what we were looking for. Standing right at the waters edge was a large and beautiful American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliates). This amazing looking bird is one of my favorite shorebirds. It is a large shorebird, the same size as a crow, with striking black and white plumage and a huge orange bill that they use to prob the sand in search of oysters and other crustations and a bright orange ring around the yellow eyes.
The current population of the American Oystercatcher is only around 43,000 so it is easy to say we where very lucky to see this bird. We must have been doubly lucky because a second American Oystercatcher flew in shortly after we arrived. Unfortunately, this bird hasn’t been listed on the federal threated or endanger species act yet. The population in the U.S. is believed to be stable but changing sea levels due to climate change can easily impact the population.
The American Oystercatcher feeds almost exclusively on shellfish. Of course, oysters make up a big part of their diet, but they also eat mussels and clams. They use their huge orange bill to first prob the sand for the shellfish, then once extracted from the sand, they use their bill to sever the muscle that holds the shell tightly together allowing them to extract the meat inside.
Unlike other shorebirds, the American Oystercatcher doesn’t become sexually mature until they are three to four years old. They nest directly on beaches. They lay only two to three eggs in each nesting cycle. With only a 50 percent survival rate they usually produce one viable chick to replace one adult. This means they need at least three nesting seasons to replace both adults and add to the over all populations. Combine this with loss of beach habitat, rising sea levels and you can see why this bird isn’t doing so well.
We captured some amazing images of these two birds along with several other shorebirds that inhabited the sandy point. The sun started to get too high to produce good images, so we packed up our gear and started the long walk back. We talked and reflected on the amazing morning and how lucky we where to see such amazing and rare birds. Everyone was thrilled but none more than me. Until next time…
Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist who travels the U.S. to study and capture images of wildlife. He can be followed on Instagram.com, facebook.com, twitter.com and more. He can be contacted vis his web page at www.naturesmart.com.
The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 7 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.
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