Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

New Zealand: variable oystercatchers

with 35 comments

Driving north from Thames on March 6th along the eastern shore of the Firth of Thames, I stopped to photograph a colony of birds whose bills were conspicuously long and orange. I later learned that the birds were variable oystercatchers, Haematopus unicolor, and that the species is endemic to New Zealand. If many of the oystercatchers look as if they were turning away from me, they were, because even with a long lens I’d approached the limit of their comfort. Nevertheless, I did manage to get closer to a few more-tolerant birds, like this one:

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

May 20, 2017 at 3:55 AM

35 Responses

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  1. Wow. I can’t imagine that there are enough oysters there to feed the entire colony. They are definitely cool-looking birds and I love the closeup shot.

    Mike Powell

    May 20, 2017 at 7:25 AM

    • You can see why I had to stop and try my luck at some pictures. I don’t recall seeing any shellfish along that stretch of beach, but then I wasn’t looking for any. The linked article notes that these oystercatchers themselves were hunted for food by people until the birds got protected in 1922.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 20, 2017 at 7:59 AM

  2. The ‘clowns’ of the bird world, my kids call them. The American Oystercatcher is no less gorgeous, though they don’t congregate in as large flocks along the Gulf Coast, that I know. I believe our NA species are struggling.

    Nice that you stopped to catalog for your birdie-type followers, Steve.


    May 20, 2017 at 8:23 AM

    • Below is our version, snapped this year, a lone individual on an industrial beach jetty (Texas City Dike).
      American Oystercatcher


      May 20, 2017 at 8:26 AM

      • Thanks for enlightening me; I had no idea we have a species of oystercatcher in Texas. The bird in your picture looks pretty similar to the one in mine.

        I see now in Tveten’s The Birds of Texas that Haematopus palliatus “appear to be expanding their range northward along the Atlantic Coast. They occur from New Jersey all the way down the eastern coasts of the Americas to Argentina, as well as from Baja California south to Chile on the Pacific side.” That was in 1993, so perhaps there have been declines in some places since then.

        Steve Schwartzman

        May 20, 2017 at 8:49 AM

        • They’re still ‘least concern,’ but nesting areas suffer when there are tremendous variations in weather (flooding storms, periods of drought). Gulf Coast Bird Observatory peeps in Lake Jackson have their backs, tho. Susan Heath is one awesome lady.


          May 20, 2017 at 8:53 AM

          • So Susan goes out on the heath, does she?

            Steve Schwartzman

            May 20, 2017 at 8:57 AM

            • Ha! I suppose that many times she does! I hope to accompany her and her team on an Oystercatcher expedition one day. Gotta get the kids out of the house first.


              May 20, 2017 at 1:12 PM

        • I see them every now and then, particularly south of Galveston across the San Luis Pass, in Matagorda, and Palacios. As Shannon mentioned, they’re on the radar of the GCBO — here’s a page about their projects. If Shannon’s snapping photos on the Texas City Dike, she’s in my backyard, and I never realized it.


          May 20, 2017 at 9:24 AM

          • Yes, you’re close. You can get on each other’s radar.

            I was going to look up the GCBO but you’ve saved me the trouble. I see what Shannon meant about dangers to the oystercatchers.

            Steve Schwartzman

            May 20, 2017 at 9:39 AM

        • That’s two match-ups in one week, Steve. Should you start a service?


          May 20, 2017 at 1:13 PM

  3. Their name cracks me up~the idea of “catching” an oyster! And a very nice capture by you. Incidentally, on NPR yesterday I caught a story from an art historian. He was explaining that in the painting of ” Venus-on-the-Half-Shell”, as they call her, she is in fact on a scallop shell.


    May 20, 2017 at 8:58 AM

  4. That’s a nice pair of photos. It is interesting how birds have very clear comfort zones, and how they seem to be able to evaluate threats. I have four mallards who’ve taken to sleeping next to a boat I’m working on. If I move to a new area, they’ll wake up, and give me the once-over. Sometimes they stay put, but if I get just a little too close, they’ll get up and move. Sometimes, they only move a foot or two, but that’s enough to reestablish the safe zone.

    For years I confused our oystercatchers with black skimmers, who have a similarly colored bill. I’d been around skimmers in Port Aransas and Corpus Christi a good bit, and wasn’t yet interested enough to really pay attention to what I was seeing. Eventually, I realized the birds I was seeing here differed in several ways from the skimmers, and that’s when I learned about the oystercatchers.


    May 20, 2017 at 9:33 AM

    • I was glad I persisted and managed to get a few pictures of these birds closer up. People who regularly take bird pictures would have had longer zoom lenses than mine and could have gotten better portraits. We do what we can. You did what you could in learning to differentiate the oystercatcher from the black skimmer. You’ve seen that I know almost nothing about birds. A few years ago at an opening of photographs from the Antarctic I struck up a conversation with a guy who told me he’d started out studying biology in college but the huge amount of memorization soon convinced him to switch to math.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 20, 2017 at 9:49 AM

      • I hope you realize what an out-loud, wake-up-the-cat laugh that last sentence brought. That’s the funniest thing I’ve heard in some time.


        May 20, 2017 at 9:51 AM

        • And all the funnier for being true. The glossary at the back of Shinners and Mahler’s runs to more than 30 two-column pages of technical terms about botany. Photographing plants is so much easier than trying to learn about them.

          Steve Schwartzman

          May 20, 2017 at 10:21 AM

  5. Is there a prize for guessing how many oystercatchers you caught on camera?


    May 21, 2017 at 3:39 AM

    • Now why didn’t I think of a contest like that? If I can adapt an old cowboy joke, I’ll add that the way to find out how many birds are in the first photo is to count their feet and then divide by 2.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 21, 2017 at 8:56 AM

      • Ha! That’s a good one.


        May 21, 2017 at 11:08 PM

        • The original involved cattle and their horns.

          Steve Schwartzman

          May 21, 2017 at 11:21 PM

          • And it sounds like something John Wayne would say.


            May 21, 2017 at 11:34 PM

            • My intuition is that the joke precedes John Wayne. I searched just now but didn’t turn up any instance of the joke in a book, which would give us a date. I remember the joke from childhood.

              Steve Schwartzman

              May 22, 2017 at 5:03 AM

              • Yes, my guess is that it would be older than John Wayne but it just seemed like the sort of thing he would say in one of his movies.


                May 22, 2017 at 6:03 AM

  6. I have a feeling an Oystercatcher is an Oystercatcher, no matter where in the world…the one I’m familiar with is above in the comments section, but there’s another on the west coast. The similarity is obvious but like the commenter above mentions, I don’t think North American versions are as gregarious as the New Zealand birds. Thanks for showing them to us!


    May 21, 2017 at 11:56 AM

    • You’re welcome. I wasn’t familiar with any of the oystercatcher species, but you and Bente (the next commenter) make it seem that the New Zealand birds can gather in greater numbers than those in other places.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 21, 2017 at 11:10 PM

  7. So many! Nice photos. Ours return to Norway every spring, and we always see them two and two, since they come here for nesting. Nice birds.


    May 21, 2017 at 2:27 PM

    • Ah, so you have a species of oystercatcher in Norway. Birds in this genus do get around. I didn’t see any signs of nesting, probably because it was too late in the season: March in New Zealand marks the end of summer.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 21, 2017 at 11:13 PM

  8. Great shots Steve .. I don’t think I have ever seen that many together! 😀


    May 25, 2017 at 3:35 AM

  9. […] via New Zealand: variable oystercatchers — Portraits of Wildflowers […]

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