Taking Careful Inventory Of A Rare Bird
Funding for American Oystercatcher survey from BP oil spill.
A year ago this spring an oil rig, owned by B.P., exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. For nearly three months oil spewed into the sea killing birds and other aquatic life. Now funding from B.P., is paying for a survey of a bird species that winters in the Gulf and breeds in New England. WNPR’s Nancy Cohen reports.
The American Oystercatcher is a shore bird about the size of a crow with a black head, yellow eyes and a long reddish-orange beak. This bird would stand out in a crowd. But finding them in Connecticut and Rhode Island takes a lot of work.
“Checking out this island, which is Mouse Island, here.”
Patrick Comins of Audubon Connecticut is peering through binoculars towards the first island of the day. He and Michael Brooks, also of Audubon, and Andrew MacLachlan from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are boating to twelve islands from Noank to Stonington, counting every Oystercatcher they can find.
“They will nest even on these private islands with houses on them as long as they’re not heavily disturbed.”
Human disturbance has framed the fate of the Oystercatcher. The species was wiped out in New England in the 1800s and early 1900s by hunters and egg collectors. Today their numbers are increasing, but slowly. Just noise from humans and dogs can alarm them. And because Oystercatchers lay their eggs on pebbles and sandy beaches, people, without meaning to, sometimes step on the eggs.
Comins finds no Oystercatchers on this island. So we head to a splatter of boulders, known as Whale Rock.
“We found an Oystercatcher! “
“In between the Cormorants”
Andrew MacLachlan wants to know if the bird is nesting.
“Let me know what you’re seeing: if you see behavior that looks like there’s something it's protecting.”
“It seems to be brooding”.
Whether these birds successfully raise young is key. The species is considered “threatened” in Connecticut. Comins estimates there are only between 30 and 50 birds in the state. This summer researchers are visiting every possible nesting spot along the coast.
“We know very little about the specifics about where the most important areas are for American oystercatchers in Connecticut, how many pairs are breeding in Connecticut, what their success rate is at various locations.”
Andrew MacLachlan says protecting the Oystercatcher protects a lot of other species and habitat.
“There are a lot of other animals that use the coastal zone that Oystercatchers use. And Oystercatchers are relatively a flashy, big bird that is kind of representative of the whole beach, dune, marsh area that they use.”
MacLachlan and others are searching for these birds on foot, in kayaks and motor boats. They’ll map the nest sites and then return to see whether the chicks survive. It’s a thorough inventory.
“Oystercatcher to the left of the geese."
We’re at Ram’s Island now, just off of Mystic.
“See that rock there that looks like it’s got a flat top and then a rounded bottom, right on top of that. Just to the right of that Great Black Backed Gull. Oh! There’s second one, pair!”
Most of the islands we check today, like this one, have no oystercatchers. A few have one or two. But on Six Penny Island, off of Groton, we hit paydirt.
“Three, four, five, six. They are all oystercatchers.”
“Six of them plus that seventh I saw flying.”
Standing on a sandy beach, the birds poke their bills into the water’s edge, foraging. They’re all adults. None of them appear to be nesting, but just seeing them is a positive sign for Patrick Comins.
“They are an indicator that there is something right about the coastline where they are occurring.”
The researchers counted ten birds today. Once they finish the inventory they will decide where the nesting birds are likely to be disturbed by people. Next year fencing and signs will be put up to keep humans and dogs away from nests.
For WNPR I’m Nancy Cohen.