A bright, red-orange bill and bubblegum colored legs make American Oystercatchers one of the easiest New England shorebirds to identify. Being easy to identify, however, doesn't mean they're easy to find. American Oystercatchers are listed as a species of special concern in Maine, which is the northern edge of their Atlantic coast range, with only 4 to 8 nesting pairs in the entire state.* If you live in coastal New England, or plan to visit this summer, and want a chance at finding an American Oystercatcher, help narrow your search by checking out recent sightings on eBird. Governed by rising and falling tides, American Oystercatchers forage at lower tides on mudflats, beaches, and shellfish beds. During high tide, they roost on islands or in coastal dunes.
By late July, shorebird migration in New England is in full swing. While some species like Semipalmated Sandpipers drop in to many beaches and mudflats by the hundreds, other species, like Whimbrel, are uncommon outside of their favored coastal stop-over sites (one such spot in Maine where 100+ Whimbrels have been seen during low tide in late July and early August is Flat Bay in Harrington). Here in southern Maine, single-digit counts are typical, and this scarcity contributes to their popularity among birders.
Their large size, compared to most common shorebirds, and their long, decurved bill make them reasonably easy to spot with a good pair of binoculars or a spotting scope. Looking for them on exposed mud flats at low tide tends to be more productive than trying to spot them among marsh grasses at high tide. Rarely, one has landed near me on a sandy beach, and on several occasions the loud flight calls of a Whimbrel have alerted me in time to look up and see the bird's distinctive silhouette speeding past.
If you've been following my nature notes for the past few months, you're no doubt aware that I've been steadily tracking the presence of a single Marbled Godwit -- a bird Jenny and I have nicknamed "Marble" -- since late August. On Thursday, December 15th, I observed Marble on a mudflat in Biddeford Pool in the company of some Herring Gulls. The following day there was no sign of Marble, and my subsequent near-daily attempts to locate my cinnamon-colored companion have come up empty. I wish I could share the next chapter in Marble's journey, but what happened Thursday night, when wind chill values dipped to nearly -20°F, is a mystery.
After such a long stay in the Biddeford area (112+ days by my count), did Marble decide to follow the lead of so many other shorebirds (like Red Knots and Black-bellied Plovers) and finally head south? Did a local raptor (Feisty?) turn Marble into a white-season feast? What do you think happened? Regardless, I'm confident that his/her spirit, if not physical form, lives on.
This year, I spent more time watching Marble than any other individual bird. May these photos provide a window into the life of one impressive and inspiring shorebird.
To view the following images in full-size, click here.
I filmed these birds (Black-bellied Plovers and a Marbled Godwit) in Biddeford Pool, ME on November 12, 2016.
Red Knots migrate incredible distances. For example, individuals of one subspecies (rufa) are known to travel from the southern tip of South America to the Arctic and back each year, or roughly 9,000 miles annually.
Typically absent from inland locations, Red Knots may occur by the hundreds at select coastal stopover sites, like some beaches on outer Cape Cod in Massachusetts. In contrast, here in southern Maine, the largest flock of Red Knots I've ever seen numbered 40 birds, but most often I see just a few, if I see any at all.
Though it's hard to top the beauty and easy identification of a fully red-chested adult, juvenile Red Knots are striking in their own right. However, to appreciate their white-edged back and wing feathers you'll need a close look. This is one reason birders living near the coast often carry around spotting scopes, so they can see these fine details from a distance, without putting undue pressure on the birds.