Spotlight on a Species

African Black Oystercatcher

Knysna boasts an amazing bounty of birds. It appears they love this place as much as we do, which isn’t at all surprising. The Knysna Estuary and ocean biome beyond is rich in biodiversity, providing many bird species with both food and habitat. The daily exchange of sea water that washes over the estuary’s salt marshes, continually replenishes the system with the important nutrients needed to help sustain a thriving web of critters – which lure many a hungry bird. Whether they are flying gracefully overhead, feeding in the thriving salt marshes, diving arrow-like towards the water’s surface to catch prey or merely perched on sandstone outcrops near the Knysna Heads – watching the diverse bird species interacting within this environment is a definite highlight of our Marine Eco Tour.

Today we are going to shine the spotlight on one of our favourite species – the African black oystercatcher (Haematopus moquini), a near-endemic bird inhabiting the coastal regions of Southern Africa and Namibia. These striking black birds have pink legs and feet, a bright orange-red bill and red eyes surrounded by an orange eye ring. We see them most often in pairs, either feeding on the exposed mud flats of the estuary, or navigating the rocky ledges and intertidal zones along our coastline.

Despite their name, these birds don’t actually dig oysters much. They forage instead on a smorgasbord diet of limpets, mussels, worms and whelks. When a male and female African black oystercatcher hook up, it seems to be a match made in heaven because they enjoy a monogamous relationship and usually stay together for life. Incredibly, the lifespan of an African oystercatcher is about 35 years, of which they are known to pair up for 25 years. At the beginning of summer, each pair produces an average of only two eggs, which they tend in unsophisticated nests on the rocks or in shallow holes in the sand just above the high water mark. Both parents incubate the eggs, which hatch after about 32 days.

We are fortunate to see these coastal birds on most of our trips. I use the word fortunate because what many people may not realise is that, at one time, numbers were in sharp decline and they were extremely vulnerable as a species. Thanks to extensive conservation efforts however, their numbers have increased considerably and they are now listed as ‘Near Threatened’ and no longer as ‘Endangered’.

In 1998, the Oystercatcher Conservation Programme (OCP) was established to increase the conservation of this species, raise public awareness and get local communities involved in the conservation of these birds. In 2000, a national ban of recreational vehicles along the beaches of South Africa was also put in place, dramatically reducing the level of disturbance in natural areas along South Africa’s coastline. This has helped increase the bird’s breeding success once again and numbers are on the rise.

Interestingly, the introduction of an invasive alien species – the Mediterranean mussel (Mytilus galloprovincialis) – has also helped increase their numbers, as it has given them an additional food source. They seem to prefer these mussels to the native species, which has in turn increased the population of native mussels all along our coastline.

During the breeding season however, the parents, eggs and chicks are extremely vulnerable to human interference and that of domestic dogs. They breed at the height of the summer holiday season, when human use of the coastline is at its peak. Which is why we thought it would be a good time to write about this amazing bird. We appeal to all holiday makers to be mindful of nests and to stay clear of these birds when you see them. Please keep your dogs on a leash at all times, as the eggs are often destroyed by wandering dogs.

Since 2012, The African black oystercatcher has been categorised as ‘Near Threatened’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, but due to a continuing state of growth, the species may qualify soon for down-listing to ‘Least Concern’ in the future. Let us all help to keep it that way!!!

Lisa Leslie

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Ocean Odyssey, Knysna

24B Saffron Lane
Thesen Harbour Town
Knysna

+27(44) 382 0321
+27(44) 382 0421
+27(82) 852 9402
info@oceanodyssey.co.za

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