Oystercatcher Update

Screenshot 2020-05-31 at 13.55.55
An oystercatcher by her nest – but look at how diverse, choppy and varied the field has become!

Courthill, Buittle Parish – 31/5/20

A week after it was discovered, I can’t resist a brief update on the oystercatchers which are nesting in my hayfield. These birds have become a signal point of interest this spring, and I pass their nest twice a day as I go back and forth to check the new calves. The grass has risen significantly over the last week, and given the continuous run of hot, dry weather, much of it has now bolted into seed. In many ways, this has only improved the birds’ chance of success, making their nest more camouflaged but also leaving it loose and open enough for chicks to walk through if they survive long enough to hatch.

Given that there are only two eggs in this nest, it would seem to imply that these birds have already tried and failed to nest this year. It’s more normal for oystercatchers to have three or four eggs, and second attempts are often made with fewer eggs. I also have to measure their timing against other oystercatchers in the area, many of which have already produced fit and healthy young. Again, the weather is in their favour – nothing kills wader chicks faster than rain and cold wind.

This year seems to have been unusually productive for oystercatchers, and I know of at least seven nests which have hatched successfully. Four of these are in Castle Douglas – some on the roof of the supermarket, others in parks, playing fields and on rounbabouts. Oystercatchers often feel like an “urban” wader, but breeding in towns and near people is actually very new behaviour – it has only been documented over the last twenty years. In fact, oystercatchers only started to nest away from the seaside about eighty years ago, and many of their habits are extremely recent.

The birds can breed in towns because the adult birds naturally forage away from their chicks and bring food back to them. This means that they can nest on flat roofs and in gutters where the chicks are actually safer than they would be on the ground. By comparison, curlews never feed their young and the chicks are expected to find their own food from the day they’re hatched. Curlews are edgy and cautious birds and it’s unfair to draw a comparison between the two, but this simple difference between the two species explains how oystercatchers appear to be growing more common (although they’re really in decline) while curlews are becoming harder to find with every year.

On the subject of oystercatchers, it’s also worth recording a quick chat with my neighbour, who I met when I was in the fettle to enthuse about my hayfield nest. He patiently heard me out, then drily remarked that we’ve come to a sad day when a single oystercatcher’s nest is something to get excited about. He remembered when there used to be a nest of oystercatchers in every field roundabout these parts, and I suppose it set him thinking on the last time he had found eggs. In the end, he was quite surprised to realise that he didn’t know when he had last seen chicks – in that he echoed a general feeling you often find across Scotland; waders are slipping away without anybody really noticing.

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