My searches for this post about Oystercatchers turned up a useful piece in the (Irish) Independent from 2022. I quote:
“Oystercatchers, once seen in great flocks, especially along the western seaboard, may not be as plentiful as in the past but they maintain their link with the tradition of St Brigid, whose feast day is nigh and for whom a national holiday is planned from next year.
In Connacht they were, and are, called Giolla Bríd, the page or messenger of the saint, an indication of her time for them and the beginning of spring and the agricultural year — a practice, according to some sources, which has evolved from pre-Christian times. Larks and linnets were also favourites of St Brigid. They are supposed to be heard singing now but are a rare sight even among coastal dunes because of intrusion from people and animals, particularly dogs off-leash. Oystercatchers also used to be a more commonplace seashore sight over the winter months, when thousands of birds would arrive from Scotland and Iceland to settle along estuaries. These flocks once made impressive sights, especially in Wales in the 1970s when there was an official cull of about 10,000 in the Burry inlet in Llanelli because shellfish harvesters claimed their livelihoods were affected. Oystercatchers, with their chisel-like beaks, were digging up to 500 cockles each a day. Mussel gatherers, on the other hand, didn’t complain as the birds provided a service in thinning and reducing density in the clumps of shells, allowing more healthy growth in the main crop.”
Oystercatchers are the third bird in the Cardross trinity, the others being Curlews and Redshanks. Hundreds can be seen there in the winter, with thousands probably elsewhere on the estuarine Clyde. The big roost just by Murrays starts with the Oystercatchers, with the Curlews a bit further along the shore in the direction of Bullens crossing.
Once the Oystercatchers spot you and call, the Curlews will know about it very soon and then the whole roost takes to the wing. The birds really cannot afford the calorific effort in the cold weather. I’m very careful how far I proceed past Murrays – I don’t usually bother if I see a mass of black and white on the shore. Smaller groups of Oystercatchers in repose will stand, affecting sleep, and submit to photography. Large groups often fly from upriver, and they are a marvellous sight on the wing and landing.
They settle on the shore at Cardross which can offer them an abundance of mussels. The foreshore is studded with rocks which are covered with the bivalves; above the high water line is a nacreous and blue carpet of half shells. I assume that the barnacle-encrusted shells attached to the rocks, and the discards, are all of the same species. I would guess that the huge Pillar Bank which sits out in the river and Cockle Bank which lies just off Port Glasgow also offer food in abundance for the Oystercatchers. Some individuals prefer to stoat about in front of the sawmill when the tide falls.
I hadn’t realised that there was quite a lot of variation in bill size and tip shape, the latter leading to different feeding preferences. These summer birds were photographed on Loch Scridain on Mull – the warm light is good to their colours, and differences in bill shape are clear.
A recent trip to Belfast Lough revealed behaviour I hadn’t seen before. A path just above the edge of the Lough at Holywood Banks on a falling tide was flanked by a long line of watchful Oystercatchers, perched on weedy rocks. As we passed by, birds began to march into the gentle surf, each returning with a cockle grasped in the open bill. The cockle was placed on a rock and levered open, and the contents were consumed.
The old name for Oystercatcher is Sea-pie. In An Aran Keening (The Lilliput Press, Dublin, 2002, ISBN 1 901866 80 7), his story of eleven months on Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands, Andrew McNeillie discusses the relative merits of Curlew and Oystercatcher for eating. In an opportunist moment and desparate for meat, he eats a bird shot by another. Earlier in the story, he writes “Seabirds and waders are as nocturnal as they are diurnal and fill the night air with their ghosting flight and piping. Their noise is a kind of aural starlight. They flicker along the breaking waves.” The next time I stay overnight close to the shore, I will try and share this experience. These sentinel birds were photographed on a rather larger island – Shetland mainland – at Sumburgh Head.
I’ve been waiting to post on Oystercatchers for a while because of reservations over image quality. Many of the ensemble images were captured from long range with the obvious limitations this imposes on clarity. Even when I have managed to find a bird at closer range, my images have lacked the crispness I’ve sought and managed to get from other wader species. I’m beginning to think this issue arises in part from the blackness of the plumage, and perhaps its smoothness too. I wonder if this lack of texture defeats the autofocus – I’ve had similar problems with some corvids and cormorants. This final image shows the limits of what I seem to be able to do with this species.
The sensitivity on the camera (500 ASA) is set quite low and the shutter speed at 1/640th should freeze some of the movement of the bird (and I hope, most of mine). The herl around the top of the legs isn’t bad, there is a nice spiralling cascade of water around the right leg of bird, and there are some pleasing little droplets of water against the black (I’m talking about the sharpness of these parts of the image), but there is quite a bit of pixellation error on the body of the bird. Perhaps I’m becoming a bit too fussy, and should just enjoy these dramatic birds, but you get like this when you feel you might not be realising the potential of the kit fully. I hope you like the images.