Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Episode 488 (9-2-19): The American Oystercatcher is a Shellfishing Specialist

Click to listen to episode (4:32)

Sections below are the following:
Transcript of Audio
Audio Notes and Acknowledgments
Extra Information
Related Water Radio Episodes
For Virginia Teachers (Relevant SOLs, etc.).

Unless otherwise noted, all Web addresses mentioned were functional as of 8-30-19.


From the Cumberland Gap to the Atlantic Ocean, this is Virginia Water Radio for the week of September 9, 2019.

MUSIC – ~6 sec – instrumental

This week, that excerpt of “The Oystermen’s Ball,” by Bob Michel, opens an episode on a bird known for its association with oysters and other shellfish.  Have a listen for about 10 seconds to the following mystery sound, and see if you can guess this bird.  And here’s a hint: catch a key word in the title of the music you just heard.

SOUNDS - ~10 sec

If you guessed an oystercatcher, you’re right!  You heard the sound of an American Oystercatcher, one of two oystercatcher species in North America, out of several species found worldwide.  The American Oystercatcher is found exclusively near saltwater along the United States’ mid-Atlantic coastline, along the Gulf of Mexico coastline, and along the Pacific coastline of western Mexico and Central America.

This large bird inhabits beaches, mud flats, sand dunes, salt marshes, and dredge-spoil islands.  There, in falling or low tides, it finds the shellfish—particularly oysters, clams, and mussels, collectively known as bivalve mollusks—on which oystercatchers are adapted to feed.  An oystercatcher can use its distinctive, long, red-orange bill in various ways to get prey, including probing in the sand; stabbing the bill quickly inside a partially opened bivalve to cut the muscle that closes the two shell valves; and using the bill as a hammer to break open a closed shell.  According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, though, oystercatchers sometimes get caught by a bivalve closing its shell on the bird’s bill, threatening drowning the bird when high tide returns.

Oystercatchers also have a special courting ritual, known as “piping.”  The behavior typically involves two birds running beside one another, bobbing their heads up and down, and making loud calls.  The birds often also take flight in tandem, and that may attract other pairs of birds into what is sometimes called a piping “tournament” or “ceremony.”

The American Oystercatcher is distinctive in its colors, courtship, and prey-catching.  Here’s a 19th-Century take on that distinctiveness, by John James Audubon: “Shy, vigilant, and ever alert, the Oyster-Catcher walks with a certain appearance of dignity, greatly enhanced by its handsome plumage and remarkable bill.”

Thanks to Lang Elliott for permission to use this week’s sounds, from the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs.  Thanks also to Bob Michel for permission to use this week’s music, and we close with about 20 more seconds of “The Oystermen’s Ball.”

MUSIC – ~20 sec - instrumental


Virginia Water Radio is produced by the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, part of Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment. For more Virginia water sounds, music, or information, visit us online at virginiawaterradio.org, or call the Water Center at (540) 231-5624. Thanks to Stewart Scales for his banjo version of Cripple Creek to open and close this show. In Blacksburg, I’m Alan Raflo, thanking you for listening, and wishing you health, wisdom, and good water.


The American Oystercatcher sounds were from the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs-Eastern Region CD set, by Lang Elliott with Donald and Lillian Stokes (Time Warner Audio Books, copyright 1997), used with permission of Lang Elliott, whose work is available online at the “Music of Nature” Web site, http://www.musicofnature.org/.

“The Oystermen’s Ball," from the 2004 album of the same name, is copyright by Bob Michel, used with permission.  More information on Mr. Michel's music is available online at http://www.bobmichel.com/.  Excerpts from this song were also used in two Virginia Water Radio episodes on oysters in the Chesapeake Bay: Episode 279, 8/24/15 and Episode 280, 9/7/15.

Click here if you’d like to hear the full version (1 min./11 sec.) of the “Cripple Creek” arrangement/performance by Stewart Scales that opens and closes this episode.  More information about Mr. Scales and the group New Standard, with which Mr. Scales plays, is available online at http://newstandardbluegrass.com.


American Oystercatcher at Egmont Key National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. Photo by Keith Ramos, made available for public use public use by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Digital Library, online at http://digitalmedia.fws.gov, accessed 8-30-19. The specific URL for the image is https://digitalmedia.fws.gov/digital/collection/natdiglib/id/11411/rec/24.

American Oyster-catcher painting by John James Audubon in Birds of America, plate CCXXIII (223), as reprinted in 1985 by Abbeville Press, New York.  Information about Birds of America is available from the National Audubon Society, online at http://www.audubon.org/birds-of-america; the Pied Oyster-catcher entry is online at https://www.audubon.org/birds-of-america/pied-oyster-catcher.  Photo above taken August 31, 2019, from the reprint copy (no. 6 of 350 copies printed in 1985) owned by Special Collections of Virginia Tech Libraries.  Virginia Water Radio thanks Special Collections for permission to photograph their copy and for their assistance.


The scientific name of the American Oystercatcher is Haematopus palliatus.

Here are some points about the American Oystercatcher, excerpted from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, “Fish and Wildlife Information Service/Killdeer,” online at https://vafwis.dgif.virginia.gov/fwis/booklet.html?&bova=040114&Menu=_.Taxonomy&version=18138.

Occurrence in Virginia

“Common to abundant permanent resident on immediate coast of Eastern Shore; locally common in Tangier area of Chesapeake Bay.   Uncommon to rare transient in lower Chesapeake Bay. Only one record in Piedmont…; no records in Mountains and Valleys.… Breeding pairs observed on Virginia barrier islands: Assateague, Assawoman, Cedar Island, Cobb, Dawson Shoals, Fishermans, Hog, Little Cobb, Metompkin, Myrtle, Parramore, Rogue, Sandy, Ship Shoal, Smith, Wreck. Peak counts occur along the coast during summer.”

Physical Description

“The oystercatcher is a large, pied shorebird, 17-21 inches….   It has back and wing coverts of olive brown; upper tail coverts and base of tail of dusky brown; head, neck, and upper breast glossy black; lower breast and abdomen pure white. Its bill and iris are bright red; bill is long, laterally compressed and adapted to opening shellfish. Legs and feet are pale pink…  A bold white wing patch is visible during flight.”

Nesting Habitat and Behavior

“Pairs will nest on same territory as previous year.  Females arrive on territory up to 3 weeks before males, from last week of February to first week of March.  Pair formation will begin as soon as both sexes are on territory.  The breeding period extends from April to August. …

“Nest building, or scraping, begins several weeks before laying as a part of the courtship.  Both sexes participate in nest scraping though males typically do most of the work.  [Scrapes} are often decorated with pieces of shell. … This species is typically a solitary nester (but will roost and flock together).

“Nest sites are selected non-randomly with preferences for areas with more substrate, less vegetation, farther distance from water, and higher elevation.  In Virginia, nests have be found in dunes, salt marsh, dredge spoil, with spots often chosen on the edges of eroding high salt marsh on shell piles or rakes.  Typical substrate is soft on the surface with a firm underlying layer.

“Courtship behavior often described as ‘piping.’”


“Foraging takes place along mudflats and receding shore.  Oystercatchers stab prey through abductor muscle and pry open with bill.  This species will stab crabs and probe for worms, besides typical shellfish food items.  Foraging occurs well beyond limits of territory.”


“Egg loss is high due to predation.  On Fisherman Island predated primarily by fish crows (Corvus ossifragus); only one in ten young fledged annually in four years of observation.  Other predators include mink, red fox, skunk, domestic dog, cat, rat, American crow, herring gull, greater black-backed gull, peregrine falcon, raccoon, and snowy owl.  Low productivity seems the rule in most studies.  Annual adult survival rate very high (up to 90%).”


Used for Audio

American Oystercatcher Working Group, online at http://amoywg.org/.  For information on the species’ courtship behavior, known as “piping,” see Alex Wilke, “American Oystercatcher Behavior,” undated, online at http://amoywg.org/american-oystercatcher/behavior/.

John James Audubon, Birds of America, National Audubon Society, online at http://www.audubon.org/birds-of-america.  The quotation in the audio was taken from Audubon’s commentary for “The American Oyster-catcher, Haematopus palliatus, Plate CCXXIII.”

Audubon Guide to North American Birds, “American Oystercatcher,” online at https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/american-oystercatcher.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “All About Birds,” online at https://www.allaboutbirds.org/.  The American Oystercatcher entry is online at https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/American_Oystercatcher.

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and American Ornithologists’ Union, “Birds of North America Online,” online at http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna (subscription required).  The American Oystercatcher entry is online at https://birdsna.org/Species-Account/bna/species/ameoys/introduction/.

Encyclopedia Britannica, “Oystercatcher,” online at https://www.britannica.com/animal/oystercatcher.

Alice Jane Lippson and Robert L. Lippson, Life in the Chesapeake Bay, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Md. (2006).  See page 89.

New Hampshire PBS, “Wildlife Journal Junior/Haematopodidae,” online at https://nhpbs.org/wild/Haematopodidae.asp.

Chandler S. Robbins et al., A Guide to Field Identification of Birds of North America, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2001.

Stan Tekiela, Birds of Virginia Field Guide, Adventure Publications, Inc., Cambridge, Minn., 2002.

Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, “Fish and Wildlife Information Service/American Oystercatcher,” online at https://vafwis.dgif.virginia.gov/fwis/booklet.html?&bova=040114&Menu=_.Taxonomy&version=18138.

For More Information about Birds in Virginia and Elsewhere

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, “Merlin Photo ID.”  This application for mobile devices allows users to submit a bird photograph to get identification of the bird. Information is available online at http://merlin.allaboutbirds.org/.

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and the Audubon Society, “eBird,” online at http://ebird.org/content/ebird/.  Here you can find locations of species observations made by contributors, and you can sign up to contribute your own observations.

Virginia Society of Ornithology, online at http://www.virginiabirds.org/.  The Society is non-profit organization dedicated to the study, conservation, and enjoyment of birds in the Commonwealth.

Xeno-canto Foundation Web site, online at http://www.xeno-canto.org/.  The site provides bird songs from around the world.


All Water Radio episodes are listed by category at the Index link above (http://www.virginiawaterradio.org/p/index.html).  See particularly the “Birds” subject category.

Following are links to some other episodes on shorebirds.

Episode 68, 6-13-11 — on Royal Tern.
Episode 79, 9-12-11 — on Piping Plover.
Episode 213, 5-12-14 — on Black Skimmer.
Episode 315, 5-9-16 — on sandpipers generally.
Episode 456, 1-21-19 —on pelicans.

Following are links to two previous episodes on oysters.

Episode 279, 8-24-15.
Episode 280, 9-7-15.


The episode—the audio, extra information, or sources—may help with the following Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs).

2013 Music SOLs

SOLs at various grade levels that call for “examining the relationship of music to the other fine arts and other fields of knowledge.”

2010 Science SOLs

Grades K-6 Earth Resources Theme
4.9 – Va. natural resources, including watersheds, water resources, and organisms.
6.9 – public policy decisions related to the environment (including resource management and conservation, land use decisions, hazard mitigation, cost/benefit assessments).

Grades K-6 Life Processes Theme
K.7 – basic needs and processes of plants and animals.
1.5 – animals’ basic needs and distinguishing characteristics.
2.4 – life cycles.
3.4 – behavioral and physiological adaptations.

Grades K-6 Living Systems Theme
2.5 – living things as part of a system, including habitats.
3.5 – food webs.
3.6 – ecosystems, communities, populations, shared resources.
4.5 – ecosystem interactions and human influences on ecosystem.
6.7 – natural processes and human interactions that affect watershed systems; Va. watersheds, water bodies, and wetlands; health and safety issues; and water monitoring.

Life Science Course
LS.4 – organisms’ classification based on features.
LS.6 – ecosystem interactions, including the water cycle, other cycles, and energy flow.
LS.8 – community and population interactions, including food webs, niches, symbiotic relationships.
LS.9 – adaptations for particular ecosystems’ biotic and abiotic factors, including characteristics of land, marine, and freshwater environments.
LS.10 – changes over time in ecosystems, communities, and populations, and factors affecting those changes, including climate changes and catastrophic disturbances.
LS.11 – relationships between ecosystem dynamics and human activity.

Biology Course
BIO.1 – current applications to reinforce science concepts.
BIO.8 – dynamic equilibria and interactions within populations, communities, and ecosystems; including nutrient cycling, succession, effects of natural events and human activities, and analysis of the flora, fauna, and microorganisms of Virginia ecosystems.

Virginia’s SOLs are available from the Virginia Department of Education, online at http://www.doe.virginia.gov/testing/.

Following are links to Water Radio episodes (various topics) designed especially for certain K-12 grade levels.

Episode 250, 1-26-15 – on boiling, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.
Episode 255, 3-2-15 – on density, for 5th and 6th grade.
Episode 282, 9-21-15 – on living vs. non-living, for kindergarten.
Episode 309, 3-28-16 – on temperature regulation in animals, for kindergarten through 12th grade.
Episode 333, 9-12-16 – on dissolved gases, especially dissolved oxygen in aquatic habitats, for 5th grade.
Episode 403, 1-15-18 – on freezing and ice, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.
Episode 404, 1-22-18 – on ice on ponds and lakes, for 4th through 8th grade.
Episode 406, 2-5-18 – on ice on rivers, for middle school.
Episode 407, 2-12-18 – on snow chemistry and physics, for high school.
Episode 483, 7-29-19 – on buoyancy and drag, for middle school and high school.