"Too cool" oystercatchers might be on comeback in Lowcountry, East Coast due to DNR-led conservation

An oystercatcher flies across Crab Bank. where it nested with other seabirds like the eastern brown pelicans, black skimmers, and royal terns. Oystercatchers are an umbrella species: Conserving them means helping shorebirds as a whole. Buy this photo

The orange bill and the orange eye - if you spot Shuckster you won't mistake him, even now that he's lost his tagging band. The oystercatcher is a large shorebird that's tough to miss.

American oystercatcher

Large shorebird, with a black head, long orange bill and white underside. Bold white stripe on wings visible in flight.

Uses its long, bladelike, orange bill to catch shellfish unaware, seizing them before they can close up. Frequently walks or runs rather than flies.

Courting birds tend to walk together and make a single piping note.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Shuckster and some 800 others of the birds winter in the marshes behind Isle of Palms and Cape Romain, one-tenth of all the oystercatchers that remain. In fact, one-third of the entire population winters on South Carolina beaches.

There used to be a lot more. But now, thanks to a collaborative, multi-state effort led in part by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, the decline might be slowed.

A recently released survey indicates that after years of decline, the birds' numbers have held and even increased slightly since 2009, when a coalition of 35 groups, including DNR and Clemson University, organized to protect the birds.

"Felicia Sanders (DNR biologist) was instrumental in moving conservation efforts forward, not just in South Carolina, but in the region," said Shiloh Schulte, American Oystercatcher Working Group coordinator.

And maybe just in time. Forced by human encroachment off the front beaches where they prefer to forage and nest, the birds moved to the shell rakes in the marshes, in the wash of boat wakes and rising tides. It used to be you could see dozens at a time off the Pitt Street Bridge in Mount Pleasant, said Nathan Dias, of the Cape Romain Bird Observatory. Now you're lucky if you spot a couple of pairs.

DNR biologists studied and protected nest areas such as Crab Bank. They identified threats and predators, and learned how to mitigate boat-wake damage, Schulte said. That was vital to the effort.

Tagging birds such as Shuckster have led to a few surprising discoveries. Those oystercatchers scurrying on the beaches and rakes are wintering here from literally from every state on the Atlantic coast. The 800 birds in the Cape Romain marshes are the largest flock found on the Atlantic coast at any one time. And they share the waters with any number of other shorebirds and wading birds.

"These birds are kind of an umbrella species," Sanders said. "So if you help oystercatchers you really are helping a lot of species."

Public awareness about giving the birds their space is the key, Dias and Sanders said. For beachgoers, having oystercatchers around is part of what makes for the allure of the Lowcountry.

"They're charismatic. They're gorgeous. They're charming," Sanders said. When a pair is defending a nest, the male and female will run away from it to distract a predator, scurrying off down the beach side by side, bobbing their heads in unison.

"They're just a really cool bird, too cool to let disappear from our beaches, that's for sure," Sanders said. "One third of the species winters here. If we don't conserve them, who will?"

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.

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