Surveying nesting American oystercatchers throughout coastal R.I.
Our office, the Southern New England-New York Bight Coastal Program, has monitored American oystercatchers for just over a year now as part of a collaborative effort to improve their status in the Northeast.
American oystercatchers are large, charismatic shorebirds with long orange bills that they use to shuck the shells of their favorite foods – clams, mussels, and oysters – to take advantage of nature’s ultimate raw bar! During the summer breeding season, oystercatchers nest in coastal habitats, laying two or three eggs into a nest scrape on the ground decorated with bits of shell, pebbles, or shoreline wrack (the seaweed and other matter that washes up on shore).
Among shorebirds, oystercatchers provide unusually extensive parental care to their young. Fluffy young oystercatcher chicks are entirely dependent on adults to deliver them food and to eventually teach them how to find and eat shellfish with their dark, stubby bills.
Oystercatcher parents diligently defend their nesting territories and chicks, delivering loud, rapid-fire alarm calls and circling display flights to ward off intruders. Despite their careful parenting, American oystercatchers are considered a species of conservation concern due to habitat loss from coastal development, disturbance, predation, and threats to nesting habitat from storm surge and sea-level rise.
Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences initiated this collaborative effort to improve the monitoring and management of American oystercatchers nesting in the Northeast. As part of this effort, our office has monitored the nesting of American oystercatchers throughout coastal Rhode Island with the goals of:
- Surveying all known historic nesting sites for nesting pairs;
- Monitoring nesting pairs to determine the number of chicks that survive an age of 35 days, at which they considered “fledged” (able to fly); and
- Increasing public awareness for oystercatchers and protection of nesting areas at high-use sites.
During the 2011 and 2012 nesting seasons, we surveyed oystercatcher pairs nesting throughout Rhode Island’s nearly 400 miles of coastline, with the assistance of partners from Connecticut Audubon, Rhode Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex, The Nature Conservancy, and local volunteers.
We discovered oystercatchers nesting within variety of diverse habitat, including rocky outcrops, sandy shorelines, marsh islands, and in among relic rip-rap scattered throughout the islands of Narragansett Bay.
In 2011, we monitored 27 nesting pairs that fledged a total of 22 chicks. This season, we are busy monitoring approximately 30 pairs, many of which have already fledged one to three chicks each!
This project has given us many opportunities to raise public awareness for oystercatchers through installing interpretative signage, temporarily fencing off nesting sites, and interacting with landowners and beachgoers about conservation efforts. These outreach opportunities have not only benefited oystercatchers, but a variety of other species that share Rhode Island’s prime coastal habitat, including common terns, least terns and piping plovers.
Pam will be going to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst this fall to begin doctoral studies in the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship Offshore Wind Energy Program. She will work with our Division of Migratory Birds to track American oystercatchers and common terns throughout the Nantucket Sound in relation to proposed offshore wind energy development.