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9 Fascinating Facts About the Blackish Oystercatcher

The Blackish Oystercatcher: A Unique and Endearing Coastal BirdEvery species of bird has a unique set of characteristics that sets it apart from others. The Blackish Oystercatcher stands out in its distinctive appearance and behavior, making it an interesting subject for bird enthusiasts and casual observers alike.

Found along rocky coasts of New Zealand and southern Australia, this bird presents fascinating characteristics that are worthy of closer inspection.


Field Identification

The Blackish Oystercatcher is a large, wading bird with a long, blunt beak, and a dark-colored plumage. They are usually between 21 to 22 inches in length and have a wingspan of approximately 40 inches.

The bird’s distinctive features include a black bill, a dark eye, and blackish-grey plumage. Their feet are bright orange-red, making them an easy identification even from afar.

Similar Species

The Black Oystercatcher, which is found along the North American Pacific coast, is often mistaken for the Blackish Oystercatcher. The easiest way to differentiate between these two species is by looking at their bills.

While the Blackish Oystercatcher has a black bill, the Black Oystercatcher has a bright orange-red bill. Additionally, the Black Oystercatcher has brighter-colored plumage and a slightly larger size.


The Blackish Oystercatcher maintains a similar pattern of molt to most shorebirds, being that they undergo a partial body molt once per year. Molt will likely be completed in June, and adult birds will be vulnerable to predation during this time.

They only exhibit one plumage over the course of their life, and juveniles share a similar appearance to adults.


Juvenile birds begin to gain their juvenile feathering by the fourth month and will lose this downy plumage between five and ten months old. They are then expected to fully gain their adult feathering by the end of their third year, and from that point on will only undergo partial molts.

The complete process to gain adult plumage is pretty slow, and as a result, many juvenile or subadult birds can be seen mixing with adults for a number of years before gaining full adult plumage.


The Blackish Oystercatcher is a captivating bird that presents a unique set of features that make it so special in the world of ornithology. Its distinctive appearance and behavior make it a fascinating subject to observe and study.

Anyone living or visiting the coasts of New Zealand and southern Australia should be sure to check out these amazing birds. Through learning about the Blackish Oystercatcher, we can gain a deeper appreciation for the natural world and the diversity of species that surround us.

Systematics History of Blackish Oystercatchers

The Blackish Oystercatcher or Haematopus ater is a fascinating bird species characterized by its unique physical features and behavior. It is an important bird species for shorebird conservation efforts, with researchers and conservationists working tirelessly to track historical changes to its distribution and taxonomy.

Geographic Variation

Blackish Oystercatchers are found along the coasts of southern Australia and New Zealand, from the South Island of New Zealand to Nullarbor Plain in Western Australia. One interesting characteristic of this species is that its distribution is limited to rocky shores, often in areas with very little vegetation.


The Blackish Oystercatcher was once considered a subspecies of the Black Oystercatcher (Haematopus bachmani). However, recent studies have suggested that the Blackish Oystercatcher is a separate species and should be defined as Haematopus ater.

In addition, there are three recognized subspecies of this bird species, primarily based on its geographic distribution. H.

ater ater – this subspecies is found on the South Island of New Zealand

H. ater longirostris – this subspecies is found on Stewart Island and the adjacent smaller islands in the south of New Zealand


ater unicolor – this subspecies is found in coastal areas of southern Australia

Related Species

The Blackish Oystercatcher is related to several other species of oystercatchers throughout the world, including the Eurasian Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus), South Island Oystercatcher (Haematopus finschi), and Magellanic Oystercatcher (Haematopus leucopodus).

Historical Changes to Distribution

The historical distribution of Blackish Oystercatchers has been impacted by various factors, including habitat loss and changes in sea temperature. During the first half of the 20th century, Blackish Oystercatchers populations declined significantly as a result of hunting and egg collecting.

In the 1950s, conservation efforts began to protect this species through the development of protected areas like Maria Island National Park, Freycinet National Park, and Kent Group National Park. In addition to human impacts, sea temperature changes have also played a role in the historical distribution of Blackish Oystercatchers.

In recent years, the Tasman Sea has warmed significantly, causing a decline in the abundance of shellfish populations, which has in turn affected the distribution of the Blackish Oystercatcher. This species has been observed to move its range to areas where the shellfish populations are robust as it is heavily reliant on such food sources.

Interestingly, contrary to the expectation of population declines due to changing sea temperatures, the concomitant changes in fish distribution brought about by these warming temperatures has resulted in a thriving population of this species.


The Blackish Oystercatcher is an important bird species that has undergone significant changes in distribution over the years. While its historical population has been affected by habitat loss and sea temperature changes, conservation efforts have helped preserve this species and promote population growth.

Despite the challenges encountered over the decades, this species has continued to survived and adapt, a true earmark of the resilience and adaptability of wildlife. As such, that it remains part of the rich tapestry of bird biodiversity that litter the shoreline of the coasts of New Zealand and southern Australia.

Habitat of the Blackish Oystercatcher

The Blackish Oystercatcher is a wading bird that is distinctively adapted to life around the shore. They are habitat specialists, primarily found along the rocky coasts of New Zealand and southern Australia, from the South Island of New Zealand to Nullarbor Plain in Western Australia, where they mostly depend on intertidal zones and rocky shores.

Intertidal Zones are essential habitats for this species. They forage for shellfish in the exposed intertidal environment, where they rely on their long, durable bills and strong legs to pry open the shells of bivalves and other mollusks.

Mollusks make up about 95% of their diet, supplemented with polychaete worms and other small prey. The intertidal zone is critical to their survival as they rely on these shellfish for sustenance.

Movements and Migration

The Blackish Oystercatcher is a non-migratory bird, and the juveniles or subadults are generally less vocal and mobile than adults and remain close to their breeding territory year-round. Further implications show that juveniles do not leave their breeding territories to seek food in other locations, primarily due to an extensive reliance on locally available feeding sites.

Furthermore, juvenile birds exhibit higher levels of mobility from their birth territories but tend to return as they age the following year, and eventually, as an adult are expected to stay in their breeding territories permanently. Studies also show that adults are more mobile than juveniles, with birds having well-established territories and regular breeding sites exhibiting clear movements between a few breeding sites.

Such movements occur during the breeding season and are characterised by a low level of activity and disruption around surrounding territories. Adult Blackish Oystercatcher lose their territorial instincts over non-breeding season and can be observed in great numbers along rocky coastlines.

These movements occur among other groups of oystercatchers, and researchers suggest these groupings could be a response to shifts in abundance of food resources, which would have been bolstered by the warming waters of the Tasman sea in recent times. Overall, while the Blackish Oystercatcher is non-migratory, it still conducts movements that can be significant for its survival and population structure.

As with many closely-related species confined to a certain locality, there is bound to be extra territorial movement amongst individuals, especially from juvenile birds, as they come to grips with their surroundings and begin to navigate the intertidal zones along the coast of southern Australia and New Zealand.


The Blackish Oystercatcher is entirely dependent on the coastal and shore habitats of New Zealand and southern Australia. This species is unique in its reliance on intertidal zones, making it a critical indicator of the health and stability of these habitats.

The movements and migration of this bird species are observed mostly around changes in food availability, with adult birds maintaining constant territories while migrating between breeding sites. The population stability of this bird species ultimately hinges upon the preservation of this unique habitat as well as efforts to monitor and regulate potential threats to their ongoing survival.

Diet and Foraging in the Blackish Oystercatcher


The Blackish Oystercatcher is known for its characteristic feeding behavior on intertidal zones along rocky coasts. They are known to use their exceptionally sharp beaks to pry open the shells of bivalves and other mollusks.

In addition, they have strong, thick legs that allow them to leverage leverage the strength of their beak when cracking shells, which they secure with one foot while working on the prey with the other. Like many other oystercatchers, the Blackish Oystercatcher forages for food primarily in the intertidal areas, actively tracking invertebrates such as bivalves, crabs, worms and other edibles on muddy or rocky coastline substrates.


The Blackish Oystercatcher mostly preys on mollusks, constituting over 95% of their diet, with bivalves and limpets being the most abundant prey types sought after. Unlike many other shorebirds that primarily prefer soft-bodied invertebrates, the Blackish Oystercatcher sees its sharp beak as an incredible asset and exploits the exceptional ability it provides for shelling these mollusks and extracting the flesh inside.

Although the species is mainly a food specialist with a selective diet, they are highly flexible in their prey selection and will often switch prey types based on availability. In addition to mollusks, they also feed on polychaete worms and small crustaceans.

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation

The Blackish Oystercatcher feeds on the intertidal zones, a habitat that can change significantly throughout the day, with changes in temperature, salinity and water levels coming and occurring every few hours – due to the periodic rise and fall of the tides – which makes thermoregulation a critical challenge for these birds. While their thick feathers provide some insulation against colder temperatures, the birds must also dissipate excess heat on hot days to avoid overheating.

To regulate their body temperature, these birds have an efficient thermoregulation system, where they pump warm blood through their legs, which increases surface area exposure to challenges brought about by intense heat, mainly on hot days along the intertidal areas at low tide.

Sounds and Vocal Behaviour

The Blackish Oystercatcher produces loud and raucous calls that are primarily used in nesting, territorial disputes, and maintaining social communication between birds. These calls are important in the formation and hierarchy maintenance of breeding pairs, especially replacing of a lost mate or defense of feeding territories.

The calls are also great in establishing communication amongst nesting pairs, primarily with offspring, who require their attention and protection. The call is a loud, trisyllabic “week-week-week”, and a sharp, piercing “wheat” sound.

The Blackish Oystercatcher becomes highly vocal in the breeding season, becoming selective in its communication when nesting or defending territories and using softer, throaty notes in communication with young ones. The calls act as a communal bonding function, especially for mated birds, with the iconic “week week week” sound marking the territories of a pair of mated birds at feeding sites.

The pair call together and answer each other, establishing a unified territory around their habitat.


The Blackish Oystercatcher is entirely dependent on the richness of its feeding habitat along the intertidal zones of rocky coasts in New Zealand and southern Australia. The birds forage for mollusks and other marine invertebrates, allowing them to maintain their natural selector diet and thrive in a harsh and dynamic environment.

Additionally, their ability to thermoregulate and dissipate excess heat allows them to survive extremes brought about by prolonged exposure to the elements. From their loud calls to softer vocalizations, this bird species’ vocal behavior is a vital component in establishing and maintaining social bonds within the species, essential to thriving in a highly dynamic and ever-changing environment that demands resilience and a significant degree of synchronization in the behaviour of its constituents.

Behavior of the Blackish Oystercatcher


Blackish Oystercatchers are incredibly adapted to moving around their rocky intertidal habitats. They stand and walk confidently around the rocky intertidal zones, and they are agile, with one of the best-developed balancing ability (amongst shorebirds), especially when feeding on rocky substrates.

The birds show a modified pelvic structure and a strong, well-muscled torso that significantly improves their balance and support as they move around the rocky shores where they are habitat specialists.


The Blackish Oystercatchers’ self-maintenance is generally limited to grooming and cleaning their feathers, which helps maintain their insulating and waterproofing qualities. This grooming behavior is particularly important in the breeding season as it ensures that the adult birds look appealing to potential mates.

In preparation for breeding, often before laying eggs, it is common for the birds to build nests made largely out of small rocks, forming a divot or bowl shape that is over time hard packed. These nests ensure protection against beach erosion and tidal waves.

Agonistic Behavior

Agonistic behavior for the Blackish Oystercatcher is typically displayed during territorial defense, especially when males protect their females and their young ones. These territorial displays persist between males, often over a few meters, while females will generally show less territorial behavior.

Males will typically confront other males that approach their female mates and will resort to head-bobbing, running or flying towards challengers to ward them off. It is a behavior that can be violent with bodily interventions when they come to blows.

Sexual Behavior

The Blackish Oystercatcher is a promiscuous bird species, meaning that either sex may have multiple mates throughout their breeding season. It is common for this species to form monogamous pairs for a season before separating and taking on multiple other partners.

Often, breeding pairs form strong relationships that last throughout the season, with both parents contributing equally to the care of the young.


Nesting for the Blackish Oystercatcher takes place typically between August and January, typically between a pair of birds that have formed a strong monogamous bond during the breeding season. One interesting behavioural trait of mating pairs is that they often seek out rocky areas or crevices for nest shelter – not just for the protection offered but for its rarity, which consequently may discourage other oystercatchers from settling in, thereby protecting the habitat from being over-occupied with similar species.

During the nesting period, males and females share duties equally, with males incubating the eggs at night and females caring for the nest during the day. It takes about 28-30 days before the eggs can hatch, and young ones, as well as fledglings, rely substantially on maternal care for the first few weeks of life outside the egg.

In summary, the Blackish Oystercatcher follows an interesting, promiscuous behaviour during the breeding season, preferring to form monogamous bonds but deviating from those commitments as the season progresses.

Demography and Populations

The Blackish Oystercatcher is a relatively stable population species, with populations estimated at about 4,500 individuals. Its distribution and density make it difficult to carry out reliable population estimates, but the species is not under threat as populations have remained steady over the years.

This stability is partly due to the species’ specialization for life in the rocky intertidal zone that has traditionally limited human activity, habitat destruction, or invasive species introduction. In addition, conservationists continue to make efforts towards protection and awareness building and have adopted science-led conservation measures to protect and ensure the continued survival of this amazing species.


The Blackish Oystercatcher is an intriguing bird species that has evolved unique behaviors to ensure its survival in the dynamic and ever-changing rocky intertidal zone habitat where it is a specialist. From locomotion to self-maintenance, agonistic and sexual behaviors, and finally, the behaviour around mating and breeding, this species showcases a high degree of adaptation and behaviour to ensure its survival in the wild.

These behaviors and good population densities make it a highly important species for conservation and environmental protection efforts, as it helps maintain popultions of the species as well as the integrity of their rocky intertidal habitat.

The Blackish Oystercatcher is a unique and engaging bird species that has adapted to life in the rocky coastal areas of

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