Oystercatcher class of '11 still using the Cape Fear River

The banded American Oystercatcher chick Green NX (first bird on the right) takes a nap on Shellbed Island with other roosting oystercatchers.

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This summer, about 78 pairs of American Oystercatchers attempted to nest on the Lower Cape Fear River. Audubon North Carolina monitored 67 of those pairs, and from those nests about 25 chicks fledged under the watchful yellow eyes of their parents.

As part of the American Oystercatcher Working Group's effort to establish a banded population of oystercatchers, 18 of those fledged chicks were banded. While three of the banded fledglings didn't survive to see the fall, several of those that did are still hanging around the river. I see them almost every week on our fall/winter surveys. Unlike most birds that I see, these are individuals I can recognize, thanks to their conspicuous green bands. The color of the bands indicates what state they are from. Green equals North Carolina. The bands also sport two characters (letters or numbers) that identify the individuals bird. Like the Wood Thrush banded in Nicaragua, the oystercatchers also wear a smaller metal band with a longer unique number.

Through band resights, we can learn about oystercatchers' demographics, dispersal patterns, how long they associate with their parents (if their parents are also banded), when they begin to lose their juvenile traits (a dark bill and dull orange eyes), and first-year survival rates. And, because I can tell which banded oystercatcher is which, I get a kick out of seeing them week after week.

Green NX is one of the most prominent chicks. It was hatched on the western shore of South Pelican Island, where it was very difficult to find during my regular nest checks because it became adept at hiding in the tall grass near its nest. When it grew big enough to capture and band, it remained challenging, but one day it strayed too far down the shoreline and I was able to nab it. When I got out a pair of bands for it, the letters on them were NX. That reminded me of the name Nixon and that infamous president, so I thought of the chick as "Tricky Dick."

Now that fall has arrived, fledged Tricky Dick spends high tides with the other oystercatchers in flocks of over 100, roosting on the rocks that formed the old Confederate blockade near Fort Fisher or on Shellbed Island just south of the rocks. Next spring, Tricky Dick may find a mate, but it might take several years for him or her to successfully raise a chick, as young oystercatchers must vie for the best habitat with older, more experienced birds. But, with luck and persistence Tricky Dick might one day raise another  chick on the Cape Fear River. In the process, it will teach us more about the life history of oystercatchers and what they need to survive.

-- Lindsay Addison

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