Though never plentiful, African black oystercatchers suffered a worrying population decline during the 1970s and 1980s due to off-road driving on beaches and disturbance by dogs and walkers at their nest sites. At one point, only 4,500 birds were left. Thanks to conservation efforts, the population now stands at about 6,000 individuals.
Resplendent in smart, all-dark plumage, with bubblegum-pink legs and dagger-like bills the colour of a Bloody Mary, African black oystercatchers are among the most charismatic species of South African and Namibian coasts. They frequent the ever-changing interface between land and ocean, foraging in spray-soaked intertidal areas pummeled by breaking waves. The birds time their movements to the millisecond, dashing forwards to snatch tasty morsels, then taking flight as the surf breaks dangerously close.
There are 10 other species of oystercatcher worldwide and like them, these dashing waders have a neat way of minimizing competition for food between the sexes. The male’s bill is relatively short and stout: he eats mainly gastropods such as whelks and limpets, whereas the female uses her longer, thinner bill to probe fissures for polychaete worms and mussels. Feeding takes place day and night, for 5–9 hours within each 24-hour period. African black oystercatchers are thought to reach the grand old age of 35. They reproduce slowly, in common with most long-lived birds, raising one brood per season. Marine Protected Areas and offshore islands are important breeding areas for these birds where disturbance is kept to a minimum.The grey-plumaged chicks hide among similarly coloured rocks, but after a couple of weeks or so become bolder and eventually join the adults at shoreline feeding areas. Here the juveniles incessantly beg their parents for food, finally becoming fully independent at two to six months old.
1 of 12: A pair of African Black Oystercathers mate after a ritualistic dance and calling session.
2 of 12: The well camoflagued eggs of the oystercatchers are placed in a nest hollow that is lined with small stones and shell bits.
3 of 12: A female oystercatcher incubates her two eggs in a nest that is placed on a slight rise and that gives good all around visibility
4 of 12: A male osytercatcher runds towards his chicks with a large reef worm.
5 of 12: An oystercatcher chick stays under the close protection of the adults who teach it to feed in the intertidal platforms.
6 of 12: An oystercatcher chick follows its parent and learns how to search from food.
7 of 12: An oystercatcher lands on a rock that has been exposed by an out-going tide and where good feeding opportunities will exist.
8 of 12: A male oystercatcher runs across a sandy beach at dawn to reach his partner and chicks.
9 of 12: Oystercatchers are fastidious about their cleanliness and bathe on a daily basis.
10 of 12: A rabbit suns itself near a pair of oystercatchers on Dassen Island on the West Coast of South Africa.
11 of 12: An oystercatcher leaves its overnight roost at dawn to begin feeding amongst inter-tidal rock pools.
12 of 12: A gathering of oystercatchers explode into flight as a wave breaks over the rock where they were socialising.