Keeping an Eye on Oystercatchers at Virginia Coast Reserve

"A healthy oystercatcher population is a good indicator of the overall health of this globally important barrier island and lagoon ecosystem."

Nicole Dewberry
Field technician at the Virginia Coast Reserve

by Nicole Dewberry

It's my first day on the job as a field technician for The Nature Conservancy. The moist, sea-salty air at the dock in Oyster coats everything, creating a crisp layer over the morning as Alexandra Wilke, my supervisor, and I board our skiff. We're headed to Ship Shoal Island, where I'm about to start a season studying the breeding success of shorebirds at the Virginia Coast Reserve.

Dawn is particularly calm today, and the water is as flat as the sky — at the horizon it’s difficult to discern where one ends and the other begins. On the island, Alex steps up on a log and asks me to join her. “Now look through your binoculars,” she says.

The rest is a blur: “That black dot in the area with shells behind the high tide line not too far left of the partially yellowed sea rocket plant that is slightly bushier than the others — that’s an American oystercatcher incubating eggs.”

Wait– What?!? I search for two solid minutes, wondering how on earth Alex can distinguish one black dot from another, much less tell that it’s incubating.

Another Day in the Life of a Shorebird Monitor

Three months later, I’m back on my own. I search through a spotting scope lens for U1, the first oystercatcher chick we caught and banded earlier in the season.

The chick will now be capable of flying and should be easy to spot. With newfound bravery, U1 appears out on the open sand, yet still within reach of marsh grasses where he can take cover.

I lower and gently cradle the spotting scope, throw on my backpack, cross U1 off my list, and hike on to the next nesting territory.

Conservation Breeds Success — and More Breeding

U1’s parents are just one among nearly 200 mating pairs of oystercatchers that Alex and I have been monitoring this breeding season.  

More oystercatchers breed in Virginia— at least 700 pairs — than any other state on the East Coast. About 85 percent of our Virginia nesters hold territories on the Eastern Shore's marsh and barrier islands.

A healthy oystercatcher population is a good indicator of the overall health of this globally important barrier island and lagoon ecosystem.

The oystercatchers’ breeding success, in particular, depends on the availability of high-quality habitat. They need to find a beach that is free of development or excessive human disturbance, and they need to choose a nest site with a low risk of being attacked by predators or washed out by high tides.

The information we gather about breeding success, as well as population size and distribution, is helping guide our management strategies at the Virginia Coast Reserve. Our oystercatcher research partners include the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Collaboration Up and Down the Coast

While the work we do here with other local organizations is important to oystercatcher conservation at the state level, the Virginia Coast Reserve is part of a larger collaborative effort along the Atlantic coast.

In fact, the Conservancy has played a lead role in the Atlantic Coast American Oystercatcher Working Group since the network’s inception. The group formed in 2000 just prior to the American oystercatcher’s listing as a species of high concern in the United States Shorebird Conservation Plan.

Group members work together to learn more about the connectivity of oystercatcher populations along the Atlantic Coast and to promote and guide additional research and conservation. Sharing information obtained from tracking banded oystercatchers, for example, is enhancing our understanding of migration patterns and population trends.

What we ultimately learn from birds like U1 will help us protect these amazing shorebirds and their habitat for many future generations to appreciate.


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