American Oystercatchers are beautiful, striking shorebirds that nest and rest here on South Carolina beaches. They have a bright orange bill that is incredibly adept at prying open oyster shells.
While these birds are resident in the state year-round, they nest all over the east coast. We see them in pairs here on Dewees Island and along the waterway. In winter, however, we get to see them in incredible numbers. Birds who spend the summer as far north as Rhode Island and Nantucket (like many human residents) fly south and gather here in large numbers in the winter.
On a recent fall evening, Big Hill Island was covered with birds. At first glance, the Dunlin, Sandpipers and Black Bellied Plovers blended in with the oyster shell substrate.
As we got closer, it was easier to pick out individual birds. A bend around the windward side of the shell midden revealed some resting oystercatchers.
Because the area around Cape Romain (including Dewees Island and Big Hill Marsh) is such an important habitat site for these and other shorebirds, the entire area is a designated World Heritage Shorebird Reserve Site. In 2018, Dewees Island and Big Hill Island were added to this network. What a treat it was to boat quietly along this area at high tide and see all the birds resting.
Because I don’t want to get too close, I am using a big zoom to shoot as many pictures as I can from a moving boat. When we get home to a large monitor, we can see that many of these birds are banded. Bird banding requires a federal permit, and each bird is marked with specific identifiers. There is a collaborative research group, The American Oystercatcher Working Group, that keeps track of resightings of this species. When I input the color of the band, the code on the band, and the shape of the code, it is cross checked against their research database. Once verified, I get back data about where the birds I see have been. Some of the birds with green bands were banded on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. A bird with an Orange Band from Connecticut is right near a Yellow Band from New Jersey. I wonder if they are like long lost friends at camp, sharing details of their other lives and glad to see one another. Here are some highlights: the first one was banded in 2006! This bird has weathered the journey from here to Barnegat Bay and back for 16 years!!! Another was spotted on Folly Beach just two weeks ago, which is 15 miles south of here!
If you’re in a boat along the waterway and you’re looking at the birds, try not to disturb them. If they all sit up and look alarmed, you’re too close, and may flush them off their resting areas. At this time of year, they need all that energy for feeding and keeping warm. Reach out if you need help reporting any bands you see!