| July 24, 2008
The little oystercatchers that could: An update
By IRENE NOLAN
In June, I wrote about the American oystercatchers that nested just
about 130 feet off Highway 12 at the area known as Sandy Bay on the
soundside just east of Hatteras village.
Despite vehicles passing by at 55 mph, the oystercatchers managed to sit on their nest and hatch two chicks on May 30.
Then the adults and the chicks foraged on the flats along Sandy Bay for more than a month.
In mid-July, one of the chicks fledged and the other was found injured by the National Park Service.
The injured chick had a broken wing, said Doug McGee, lead avian
biotechician with the Park Service. McGee said a veterinarian who
examined the chick said the wing was most likely broken in an impact
with a vehicle.
The injured chick was sent to a veterinary clinic, and died on July 21.
The surviving chick, he said, is still “hanging out” at Sandy Bay with the adult oystercatchers.
McGee explained that eating the food that is the staple of the
oystercatcher diet, shellfish, is a learned behavior. The chicks
first feed on sand fleas or mole crabs. Then, after they can fly,
they stick with the adults to learn how to use their bill to cut the
muscle of shellfish and open them.
McGee added that the oystercatchers have tried to nest at Sandy Bay
every year since 2005 when he arrived at the seashore. This year
was their first success.
For more information
For more information on the oystercatchers that could, see article from June 9, which is reprinted below.
June 9. 2008
The little oystercatchers that could
By IRENE NOLAN
Resource closures on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore have gotten
more attention than ever this summer – from the media, on the
message boards, and in conversations at local stores and post offices.
More of the beach is closed than ever before as a result of a consent
decree, signed by a federal judge on April 30, that settled a lawsuit
by environmental groups over ORV use on the seashore.
The National Park Service is required to put up buffers around nesting
shorebirds, including the American oystercatcher, which is not defined
as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
However, breeding and nesting oystercatchers on seashore beaches
require a buffer of 150 meters (492 feet), which in some cases
can close access to areas of the beach that are still open. This
is part of what has happened to close Cape Point.
Once the chicks have hatched, the buffer must be 200 meters (656 feet).
Then, you have the case of the little oystercatchers that could.
These oystercatchers did not get the word about nesting on the beach and the buffers that are available.
Instead it nested on the soundside of Hatteras Island, just east of Hatteras village, in the area known as Sandy Bay.
The nest was just 40 meters (131) feet off Highway 12, and the little
oystercatchers that could sat on the nest as trucks and cars whipped by
at 55 mph.
The consent decree stipulates that when nesting occurs in the
“immediate vicinity of paved roads, parking lots, campgrounds,
buildings, and other facilities, NPS retains the discretion to provide
resource protections to the maximum extent possible while still
allowing those sites to remain operational.”
In other words, the Park Service is not required to close down Highway 12 for nesting birds.
There was the prescribed buffer to the east and west of the nest, but
only 40 meters – not the required 150 – to the south along
On May 30, the two-egg nest hatched, and a week later, the parents and two chicks are foraging close to the sound in the area.
“A lot of them are less disturbed by vehicles,” says Britta
Muiznieks, wildlife biologist with the National Park Service.
“To some degree birds are more tolerant of people in their
vehicles,” says Susan Cameron, waterbird biologist for the North
Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. She added that there are
different levels of tolerance for vehicles for different species.
Anyone who tried to stop along the highway to get a closer look
at the little oystercatchers that could or to photograph them found
that out. The birds, seemingly tolerant of the traffic, flew off
the nest if a pedestrian appeared.
Muiznieks said the couple who set up housekeeping at Sandy Bay is a new
pair. One of the oystercatchers is banded, and the Park Service
knows that it nested last year north of Buxton. There was a pair
last year at Sandy Bay, and seashore biologists think that the other
oystercatcher is one of the two there last year.
It takes oystercatcher chicks about 35 days to fledge, so these chicks
have at least another four weeks to go, being raised on the
island’s only and very busy highway. They will have to
learn not to forage or play in the traffic.
What are their chances?
“It will be a nice surprise if they fledge,” says Muiznieks.
No one is suggesting that oystercatchers need to nest next to a highway
or that close to vehicles and people. The little chicks are still
in great danger from passing vehicles.
However, it does make you wonder what all the fuss about ORVs and
expanded buffers is about. After all, these birds were extremely
tolerant of passing traffic but not of pedestrians. Yet, the consent
decree allows pedestrians access, in some cases, that ORVs don’t
Anyway, as you drive along Highway 12 near Sandy Bay, slow down and
help the chicks of the little oystercatchers that could fly away.