With its long orange bill, orange-rimmed eyes and black-and-white "tuxedo" body feathers, the American Oystercatcher is one of Tampa Bay's most recognizable shorebirds. Numbers of this brightly colored beach-nester have been steadily increasing in Tampa Bay, and the local contingent of about 130 pairs is roughly 40 % of the state's population.
American oystercatchers inhabit sand and shell beaches, and occasionally use salt marshes. Nesting season for oystercatchers in Florida is typically from March to July. Because they nest on the ground, oystercatchers are highly vulnerable to disturbance during nesting. Oystercatchers often nest on the sandy fringes of natural or manmade islands in the bay, which offer the greatest safety from predators.
American oystercatchers are monogamous, and the male takes on most of the nest-construction duties, digging a shallow depression, or "scrape" in sand or shell shorelines. The female lays two or three olive to buff-colored eggs marked by splotches of brown or black. Only one brood is raised per season, but a replacement clutch can be laid if a clutch is lost. Incubation by both parents lasts around 26 days. Chicks follow adults around after hatching and are dependent on their parents for about two months. Young birds may not breed until three years of age.
Oystercatchers use their impressive, chisel-like bill to pry open their preferred dinner, which includes mollusks, oysters, clams, sea urchins, starfish, marine worms and other invertebrates. In addition to their orange markings, the oystercatcher sports flashy pink legs which add to its jaunty appearance.
Juvenile oystercatchers are browner than adults, with a dark iris, dull grayish legs, and dark-tipped pinkish brown bill. The upper parts of young birds are faintly fringed with buff. The adult bird has yellow eyes with an orange orbital ring. An oystercatcher's call is a loud kleep; their alarm call is a ringing wip given with increasing frequency as danger approaches their nest or young.
Oystercatchers face a wide array of threats, from pollution and destruction of shellfish beds to coastal development and heavy recreational use of their beach-nesting habitat. Because their population is declining in many parts of Florida, the oystercatcher is considered a Species of Special Concern in the state.
You can help protect oystercatchers by respecting signs warning of shorebird nesting areas. Please do not venture onto posted nesting islands or allow your dog to run loose in these areas.