These days even the poorer among us aspire to owning all sorts of gadgets, clothes and accoutrements that we couldn’t even have dreamed about a couple of decades ago. Big screen TVs, fancy cars, recording equipment, cameras, wetsuits, surfboards, outdoor hiking clothes and boots. Those things weren’t on our wish list. They just didn’t exist or the money wasn’t there and neither was level of consumerism we have now. All that stuff was for rich people.
So when I got a pair of binoculars for my 11th birthday I was thrilled to bits in a way few of us can be thrilled these days. My Dad had seen them on offer in one of the national newspapers and sent off for them. The casing was plastic, nothing like the ones you get today but they magnified stuff and that was enough for me.
Birds were my thing and I could happily spend hours on our beaches looking at gulls and sandpipers and herons. Oystercatchers were my favourite. I’d like to give a fancy pants reason for this but I suspect it was because they are so easily identifiable.
Sandpipers, sanderlings, plovers, stints….all are very easy to get confused about but you know where you are with an Oystercatcher with it’s long red beak, sturdy legs and stark black and white plumage. And I could always impress with my knowledge when an Oystercatcher hove into view.
I would say…
“is an Oystercatcher.”
…with a rare confidence that my disinterested siblings or parents could not contradict.
I liked them too because that long beak and slopey head gave them the demeanour of a morose idiot which. for some reason, resonated with me.
Oystercatchers are found on nearly all coasts(and some inland areas) all over the world except for at the Poles and some parts of the tropics. Most species are monogamous and often stick to the same nesting grounds. The Eurasian ones though are rumoured to sleep around…
There are 12 different species of oystercatcher though they are all similar. There are some variations within species. Some have a thick blade like bill which is used for breaking open shells and some have thin pointed ones used for searching for worms. Most are Pied oystercatchers but there is the Sooty oystercatcher, which is all black, and found in Australia and the Variable oystercatcher which, you’ve guessed it, can be either.
Oysters in fact do not make up much of their diet.The oystercatchers we see on the rocks around here feed on limpets, mussels, gastropods(snails and slugs to you and me) and chitons marine molluscs that look sort of like massive woodlice as far as I can tell. Inland they feed on earthworms.
They were called a variety of names before oystercatcher was settled on in 1843. Mussel Picker, Oyster Plover, Sea Pilot and most commonly the Sea Pie. Maybe it tastes nice and indeed they were eaten in medieval times, along with everything else with legs.
In culture the oystercatcher is the symbol of the Faroe Islands and also an emblem of St. Brigid. It is called Brid-eun, ‘Bride’s Bird’ or Bigein-Bride, ‘Bride’s Boy’, in Gaelic. On the island of Lismore (off Scotland) it is known as Gille-Bride, the page or servant of Bride, and in Uist as Bridein, the bird of Bride.
One of my favourite authors, Dorothy Dunnett, whose prose reflects her other career as a painter, mentions a novel use of oystercatcher beaks in her book King Herafter set in the 11th century…
“Exactly on time, the lead came in from Cumbria and was unloaded at Scone by men with oyster-catcher beaks fastening their jackets.”
Watching them the other day at Kilmurrin Cove, the thing I most noticed was how mucky their beaks and legs were from foraging for food. It gave them a sort of workmanlike air. I imagined them as foremen in factories in Yorkshire.
“Roll up thy sleeves lad and get stuck in lad, there’s limpets to be ‘ad…”
…an impression furthered by their black waistcoats over their white shirts.
I watched a while longer as they strutted about the shining sand. As I turned to leave they rose and flew to the far end of the little beach and I was reminded again of Dorothy Dunnett…
“…and from the shore came the scalloped cry of an oyster-catcher, joined after a moment by others. “