Those of you that know me, know that i am a keen birdwatcher and focus a lot of my photography around birds. I am not quite a twitcher but rather someone who tries to enjoy watching birds as they carry out their daily lives and occasionally I am lucky enough to capture them on camera. One of my favorites is definitely the African Black Oystercatcher and De Hoop Nature Reserve in the Western Cape is a perfect spot to watch them in good numbers. The De Hoop coastline is extremely rugged and comprises many intertidal platforms which get pounded by the waves but are the rich feeding grounds of the oystercatchers. In recent years these oystercatchers have managed to climb back up the rather slippery slope towards extinction when the beach driving ban was implemented and fortunately are now a fairly regular sight on our Western Cape coastline.
1. African Black Oystercatcher adult pair leading their chick to the daily feeding grounds
2. African Black Oystercatcher taking an early morning bath in the surf zone.
Most people are used to seeing them standing around on the shoreline with heads tucked into their wings as they rest between feeding bouts and probably think of them as fairly boring. What many do not realize is that these are really feisty birds that have tremendous character and are perfectly adapted to the environment in which they live. A recentt Outdoor Photographer magazine showcases a brilliant picture (which makes me extremely jealous) of an American Black Oystercatcher attacking an American Bald Eagle and according to the text did so every time this eagle tried to fly past towards its nest.
3. African Black Oystercatcher at its overnight roost on a raised boulder platform.
4. African Black Oystercatcher pair roosting with bills tucked under their wings and waiting for the tide to subside so they may start feeding.
On changing tides, the oystercatchers move down to feed on mussels, limpets, whelks and reef worms that are richly packed in the high nutrient area of the tidal platforms. It amazes me how perfect their timing and judgment is as they either dodge or turn into breaking waves and they instinctively know which wave will not threaten them and time their moves to the micro-second.
5. African Black Oystercatcher pair being caught in a breaking wave on the inter-tidal platforms as they feed.
6. An African Black Oystercatcher tugging at a reef worm that will be fed to its chicks waiting on the shoreline
Come breeding time when they have chicks it is even more amazing to watch how many feeding trips the adults make to feed their ravenous youngsters. Soon there is a pile of empty mussel and limpet shells on the beach as the chicks change from a fluffy and camouflaged mottled grey/brown to their distinctive black color. Parents also seem to specialize on the food that they bring the chicks and this also seems to vary between the different pairs along the coastline. In my most watched pair, the male specializes in bringing long fat reef worms while the female is an expert in prizing open the hard shells of the mussels. It is also great to watch the social interactions between the breeding pairs, with raucous meetings accompanied by much “dancing” in circles and occasional bullying also taking place.
7. The well camouflaged nest and eggs of an African Black Oystercatcher. The nest has been built on a rocky outcrop.
8. An adult African Black Oystercatcher teaching its chick to feed on a piece of washed by Red Bait
Too often, we as birdwatchers or photographers rush from one spot to another in the hope of increasing our list or just “finding” that award winning image. Rather we should be spending time getting to know what is out there in front of us. By spending time on one species or at one location we end up being richly rewarded with great behavior that rivals (in my mind actually beats) any of the soap-operas on television. Once we know our subjects well enough, only then can we visualize and capture great photographs.
9. An African Black Oystercatcher at sunrise and on its overnight roost
10. An African Black Oystercatcher ruffles it feathers in preparation for flight.
Story and images by Wildlife and Conservation Photographer Peter Chadwick