The variable oystercatcher is a species of wader in the family Haematopodidae. It is endemic to New Zealand. The Maori name is torea-pango. They are also known as ‘red bills’. WikipediaScientific name: Haematopus unicolor Conservation status: Least Concern (Population increasing)

Beak grubby from foraging for worms on grassy playing fields of Bayfield Park, this purposeful oyster catcher strides its domain
Meanwhile, its mate takes it easy

The two photos above were taken about three weeks ago at the Anderson Bay inlet.

As I walked away that day, a red billed gull also foraging on the grassy area began to try and peck the two oyster catchers. One of the oyster catchers took off to fly around in circles, attracting the gull away. The gull and crafty oyster catcher kept up the chase for some minutes until the gull got bored and landed, beginning to interest itself in something other than annoying its neighbours.

I likened this little display to that familiar basic urge we all have to claim and / or defend territory; be that literal or metaphorical. I thought that I could learn from the oyster catcher. It was not going to give up its rights to its space easily, but rather than scrap for it, took a more tactical approach and wore the gull down with the distraction of some aerial ploys and dynamics.

Gulls and oyster catchers feeding alongside each other in a fairly companionable manner

A few weeks later I noticed six oyster catchers take off from feeding on grubs and worms on the playing grounds and fly over for some shell fish in the neighbouring inlet where gulls had gathered to feed. Remembering the previous occasion I thought, ‘This will be interesting’.

I was surprised to see that the gulls didn’t seem to mind too much. No fuss was made. However, I did notice that at all times a certain distance was maintained between the two.

Interesting that they chose to fly and land as a group. Surely this was sending a signal to the gulls. After landing as a group they then went on to find their own spaces in which to forage. Unlike the gulls who are known for their squabbles over food and territory and who tend to feed in large numbers, close together.

Oyster catchers usually mate for life, bring up their chicks together and can live for up to eighteen years.

After witnessing this unified approach to landing in what could potentially be enemy territory, I had even more respect for the oyster catcher. Safety in numbers, but establishing space and independence within the group.

Part of the willingness of the gulls to keep a respectful distance between themselves and the oyster catcher could well be the oyster catcher’s sharper beak, which I imagine could do quite a bit of damage

At night, the sound of a pair of oyster catchers calling to each other as they fly through the darkness, conjures a feeling of heading for home for me. The end of a day, the journeying pair travelling towards a safe place, each one protecting the other, sounding out, locating and leading the way to wherever their safe haven is.


Writer from Dunedin, New Zealand.

3 thoughts on “Species

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