American Oystercatcher Project
The American oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus) is listed as a species of special conservation concern in New Jersey. We work to monitor and protect American oystercatchers in New Jersey and throughout other parts of its range.
If you spend time along the New Jersey coast, there’s a good chance you have seen or heard an American oystercatcher. Standing nearly a foot and a half tall with a long orange-red bill, the stocky black, brown, and white oystercatcher is not easily overlooked. Their loud calls and gregarious behavior makes them even harder to miss.
Despite being so striking, you may not have heard as much about the oystercatcher as you have heard about other coastal species, such as the piping plover or osprey. In fact, until recently, significant information gaps existed about oystercatchers in the state. That is changing now that researchers have begun to focus more attention on them.
Once abundant along the entire Atlantic coast, oystercatchers were believed to be extirpated in the Northeast as a result of intensive market hunting and egg collecting in the 1800’s. With the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, the oystercatcher began to rebound. However, various factors including habitat loss from coastal development, human disturbance from recreational activity and elevated predator levels have kept the population low.
Breeding in New Jersey
Breeding habitat in New Jersey primarily consists of coastal beaches, inlet spits, and back-bay salt marshes. New Jersey’s breeding population is estimated to be approximately 350-400 pairs, although an entire statewide survey has not been conducted to date. About 15%-20% of the state’s pairs breed on beach habitat and are the most studied segment of the population, but the majority nest in salt marsh habitat. Other pairs nest on dredge spoils and in estuarine habitats. Based on the size of its breeding population, New Jersey ranks among the top five U.S. states along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts in terms of importance for implementing stated conservation goals for oystercatchers.
Wintering and Migration
New Jersey is also important for oystercatchers during the non-breeding season. As the northernmost state in the wintering range, some years it is host to nearly 1,000 oystercatchers, just under 10% of the population. Unlike during the breeding season when they are highly territorial, oystercatchers gather in large roost flocks in the fall and winter. The flocks, which are generally in or near inlets, vary considerably in size. In New Jersey, flocks in Absecon and Hereford inlets are especially important as they number 200-400 birds each and often account for the majority of birds present during the non-breeding season. In addition to Absecon and Hereford Inlets, surveys in New Jersey during the non-breeding season are also conducted in Barnegat, Brigantine, Corson's, Great Egg, and Townsends Inlets and have found anywhere from a handful to 200 birds. (The maps below depict the use NJ inlets by non-breeding oystercatchers from July-December)
Since 2005, banding of oystercatchers in New Jersey has been performed following the protocols established by the American Oystercatcher Working Group. Data collected are used to identify oystercatcher distribution, abundance, reproductive success, survival, site fidelity, and other habitat use. Researchers in New Jersey band the birds with duplicate orange bands with two engraved black letters/numbers on its upper legs. Nearly 350 oystercatchers, including both adults and chicks, have been color-banded in New Jersey to date and the effort to increase the marked population continues.
Population and Status
During the winter of 2002-03 a range-wide aerial survey conducted from New Jersey to Florida and the Gulf coast led to a population estimate of approximately 11,000 oystercatchers. This winter in 2013, another range-wide aerial survey is being conducted to see how the population estimate has changed since the last range-wide aerial survey.
Oystercatchers are not currently listed as an endangered or threatened species in New Jersey, but experts were concerned enough to have recently designated their status as a species of "special concern.” Other beach nesting birds – piping plovers, least terns, and black skimmers – that share the same nesting habitats and face the same threats have already been listed. If oystercatchers are to avoid that fate, a comprehensive conservation effort guided by the recent surge in research is critical.
New Jersey’s coastal zone is so highly developed that intense management of nesting sites is necessary if oystercatchers are to successfully breed. As a result, each year the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey and other partners work to protect nesting areas with fencing and signage to alert beachgoers where oystercatchers are nesting and to prevent nests and young from being disturbed, trampled, or run over. Paid seasonal stewards and dedicated volunteers patrol the nesting areas to monitor human disturbance and other recreational activities, as well as educate beachgoers. Beach management plans have been developed and implemented with coastal communities to minimize impacts on nesting birds from municipal management, beach maintenance, and other uses of the beach. Other areas, such as National Wildlife Refuges, are closed to certain public activities to allow for birds and other wildlife to survive undisturbed. Data collected during the breeding and migratory seasons are used to track the oystercatcher population, gauge reproductive success, and identify threats. It is highly unlikely oystercatchers would survive in New Jersey without this extensive monitoring and protection effort.
Through generous funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, CWFNJ has been able to continue to provide protection and conduct surveys during the breeding, migratory, and wintering seasons in New Jersey. We also work closely with the American Oystercatcher Working Group and its partners to protect oystercatchers throughout other parts of its range.
Share the Shore
If you live near or are visiting our beaches, you can help protect oystercatchers by following a few simple rules:
- Respect all areas fenced or posted for the protection of wildlife.
- Do not chase, approach, or linger near birds or their nesting areas, or in anyway harass birds.
- Control dogs (or better yet leave them home). Dogs can chase or frighten adult birds and their chicks, sometimes even eating or stepping on eggs and chicks. Dogs are not permitted on most beaches during the nesting season, but if they are allowed, keep them leashed and well away from nesting areas.
- Keep cats indoors. Cats kill millions of birds each year, including our oystercatchers.
- Do not leave or bury trash or food scraps on the beach. Garbage attracts predators, such as gulls, crows, red foxes, raccoons, skunks, and cats, which may prey upon eggs or chicks. And please do not feed any of these predators.
- Oystercatchers Vulnerable in New Jersey Despite Rise in Population, February 2014
- Assessing Hurricane Sandy's Impact on Wildlife (Press Release), November 2012
- Wildlife Assessment Post Hurricane Sandy at North Brigantine Natural Area, NJ
- Wildlife Assessment Post Hurricane Sandy at Strathmere Natural Area, NJ
- American Oystercatcher Banding Project in New Jersey
American Oystercatcher Factsheet - 189.2KB
American Oystercatcher Conservation Action Plan - 728.4KB
American Oystercatcher Focal Species Business Plan - 1.2MB
Todd Pover, CWF Senior Wildlife Biologist: Email
Emily Heiser, CWF Wildlife Biologist: Email
American Oystercatcher Story Map
Use interactive web-mapping and multi-media to follow American oystercatchers throughout the year as they migrate between northern breeding sites and southern wintering spots & learn about their life history and the various threats they encounter along the way.