A 4-day old American oystercatcher chick that had hatched June 8 on the ocean side of Route 1 near the Indian River Inlet bridge was safely relocated along with its parents June 12 to the bay side of Delaware Seashore State Park.
The mission was accomplished with the help of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control’s Division of Fish and Wildlife and Delaware State Parks staff, supported by DelDOT’s Traffic Safety Office and the Delaware State Police,
“Sooner rather than later, the oystercatcher parents were going to attempt the dangerous journey across this busy stretch of road with their chick to reach their foraging area on the bay side,” said Matthew Bailey, Division of Fish and Wildlife beachnester biologist, who coordinated the effort to move the chick.
“This attempt would not only have resulted in the likely death of the chick and probably its parents, but also could have posed a serious public safety threat to motorists swerving to try to avoid hitting the birds. So, we decided the best thing for everyone would be to intervene and move them ourselves.”
Easy to spot with its distinctive black, white and dark brown plumage and bright orange bill, the American oystercatcher is listed as an endangered species in Delaware, with only about 25 breeding pairs estimated in the state. The species is considered rare on the East Coast, and is also listed as endangered in several other mid-Atlantic states.
Oystercatchers nest on open or sparsely vegetated beaches that are in close proximity to the more heavily vegetated habitats to which the chicks will move soon after hatching. The chicks use the vegetation for protection from the hot sun and as cover from the sharp eyes of predators. Unfortunately, in the case of this particular brood, Route 1 splits these two habitat types. As one might expect for a bird named “oystercatcher,” their primary food sources are bivalves such as oysters and clams. In Delaware their bivalves of choice are mussels, which can be found in abundance in the Inland Bays.
The whole relocation operation went smoothly, if not quite as planned. Bailey and five other members of the Division of Fish and Wildlife’s Species Conservation and Research Program - Rachel Emory, Jesse Baird, Sarah Baker, Bracken Brown and Sarah Brownlee-Bouboulis - captured the young oystercatcher near its nest among the open ocean side dunes, while additional fish and wildlife and parks staff members lined the edge of the road to act as catchers should the quick little juvenile come that way. Right on cue, DelDOT and Delaware State Police safely brought north- and southbound traffic to a brief pause, while Bailey, Baird and Emory scrambled over the barriers in the multilane roadway cradling the small gray down-covered bird in their hands.
“We hoped the parents would simply follow their chick - behavior that would be fairly typical of this species - but they continued to circle the empty nest on the dune,” Bailey said. “We waited and watched with concern that the chick might be abandoned. After about an hour, we decided we should try to move the adults. Using a decoy oystercatcher, we were able to successfully capture the chick’s parents and drove them over to the bay side. We held the adults in hand as the chick approached, and the three began to exchange contact calls. We released the adults, who immediately went to their chick, and the family was reunited.”
“This was a great success story of both rare species conservation and agency cooperation, as four state agencies were able to quickly combine their expertise for the benefit of a rare species - this tiny oystercatcher chick and its parents,” said Rob Hossler, wildlife program manager with the Division of Fish and Wildlife.
A new video about the oystercatcher relocation debuted on YouTube’s Delaware DNREC channel. To view “Catching an Oystercatcher” and other DNREC videos on YouTube, click Delaware DNREC8.
For more information about beachnester birds and monitoring efforts, contact Bailey at 302-382-4151 or firstname.lastname@example.org.