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 Oystercatcher - Fact File
Haematopus ostralegus
Resident and widespread, with winter influx from Europe.
Chiefly a shorebird, but locally breeds inland by rivers, lochs and gravel pits. In winter, more strictly coastal.

Noisy boldly plumaged wader. It's piping calls draw attention, and the black and white plumage and long red bill make it easy to identifyl.

43cm (17")


In the early 1970s there was a great deal of public debate concerning the oystercatchers or 'sea pie'. Chiefly, it was all bad publicity for this very attractive shorebird, for where they assemble in vast numbers on cockle and mussel 'lays' they were said to be threatening the livelihood of local fishermen.

In 1974 Permission was granted by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries for numbers of oystercatchers on certain parts of the west coast to be reduced by several thousands. Personally, I found it rather sad that so many of these colourful birds had to be destroyed.

During the past 40 years or so there appears to have been a general increase in numbers of oystercatchers, and today big flocks can be seen on favourite sand-banks and mudflats, paddling about in search of shellfish and small crustacea. But why this bird has been called oystercatcher is not very clear, since there is hardly any evidence that they are capable of opening a fully developed oyster. Oyster beds where young oysters are matured are as carefully looked after today as are game preserves, and it does not seem that the 'sea pie' has been one of the enemies.

Oystercatcher in flightIt is an attractive bird to watch, either on the bleak mudflats on a grey winter's day or along the warm stretches of sand and shingle in summer. The black and white plummage of the oystercatcher is pleasantly relieved by its orange-red bill, crimson irides and rosy-pink legs and toes. Even the darker upper parts of its plumage show purple and blue and bronze-green reflections.

Throughout my long association with Breydon Water I have always had a special attachment for the oystercatcher. I have watched its steady increase as a bird of the mudflats as well as observing its nesting activities on the adjoining marshland.

At the turn of the century it was by no means a common wader on the mudflats, the late A H Patterson in his book 'Nature in Eastern Norfolk' (1905) considered it worthy of a mention when up to a half dozen oystercatchers were present on Breydon. Quoting from his book, Patterson goes on to say: 'That it is very seldom seen on Bredyon and when met with on the mudflats it is generally in the spring and singly. I observed one as late as June 20, 1902 as it was probably a non-breeder.'

Bringing the status of this bird up to date on Breydon, it is now by no means unusual to see flocks of between 40 and 50, and they seem to find plenty of food in the form of cockles, mussels and smaller shellfish. Although there are many winkles on Breydon, I have never seen the oystercatcher take them.

In earlier days most of these shellfish, and including clams, were gathered for human consumption. But this practice was later condemned as more and more untreated sewage flowed into the rivers, so today all the shellfish is left to the oystercatchers and other waders to enjoy.

Breydon marshes' history as a nesting site is relatively short. I was fortunate to be able to record the first nest of oystercatchers on a marsh adjoining the North Breydon wall in June, 1940.

The late Dr B B Riviere, of Norwich, author of the 'History of Birds of Norfolk,' came over to Breydon to see this new nesting site of the oystercatchers — which was the first record for these birds nesting on grassland away from the coast in Norfolk. H F Witherby, editor of 'British Birds', considered this nesting record was worthy of mention in that journal, and it is recorded in Vol XXXIV No. 9, page 201.

As this was the first time that the oystercatcher had come so far from its more conventional nesting habitat on the shingle beaches and sandhills close to the sea, one wondered why. It could have been the result of the considerable activity then going on along the coastline by defence preparations, with the laying of landmines and barbed wire entanglements. Perhaps these oystercatchers had flown inland and found things more peaceful around Breydon Water.

By Ted Ellis

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Illustrations by Dave Nurney from - The Pocket Guide to the Birds Of Britain and North-West Europe By Chris Kightley and Steve Madge
© Pica Press and reproduced with kind permission.