What happened to the Birding ?
If I have touched your curiosity button and you are wondering why I seem to have changed the theme of my blog to culinary matters, let me set things straight right away. I was looking for some background information about the bird which is the subject of my recent twitch of a rarity and my extensive research (OK, I just googled a bit) came up with something unexpected……
The bird in question is the Eurasian Oystercatcher, the unexpected fact is that the Oystercatcher was originally known as the “Sea Pie” but was renamed in the 1730 ‘s when a naturalist observed one eating oysters. The name “sea pie” seems to be a shortened form of Sea Magpie, due to its pied (black and white) appearance, (not applicable to our better known African Black Oystercatcher which has all black plumage).
Just a little background
At the risk of boring those who already know my approach to twitching (the chasing of rarities no matter what it entails) let me repeat my criteria : if the rarity in question is within maximum 2 hours travel time by car from where I happen to be, I will consider going for it.
Once again the trigger came from the SA Rare Bird News report (SARBN) which is published by Trevor Hardaker twice a week – in this case it was the report of 3rd December 2021 that piqued my interest with a report of an Eurasian Oystercatcher on the Keurbooms River estuary at Plettenberg Bay in the southern Cape.
We were still in Pretoria at the time but were readying ourselves for a mid December road trip to our other home in Mossel Bay, so if the bird hung around long enough, there may be a chance to twitch it…..
I kept an eye on the reports coming through and as our departure date got closer, and the Oystercatcher remained in the same area, my hopes of being able to twitch the species started rising.
Now I should mention that I had in fact seen this species in Europe a number of years ago, but the circumstances were rather bizarre and the sighting somewhat unsatisfactory so I was keen to get a better sighting and of course to be able to add it to my list of Southern African birds seen.
At the time we were travelling to the UK via Amsterdam Schiphol airport and while taxi-ing after landing at Schiphol early morning I spotted, from my window seat, an Eurasian Oystercatcher at the edge of a concrete water channel along the perimeter of the airport – the sighting was brief but there was no mistaking the bird with its black and white plumage and distinctive bill
As I said, a somewhat unusual way to add a lifer and not what I consider fulfilling…..
Time to Twitch
We arrived in Mossel Bay on Wednesday 15 December 2021 after a road trip spread over 3 days and, once settled in to our ”Southern Cape” routine, my thoughts returned to the Eurasian Oystercatcher, which was still hanging around in the same area on the Saturday, so we decided to do the trip to Plettenberg Bay (or Plett for short) on the Sunday.
Now, 150 kms doesn’t usually sound like a challenging distance to drive for a day but Google Maps put it into perspective by estimating that a 2 hour drive awaited us, fortunately just making it into my (admittedly arbitrary) 2 hour drive time limit for a twitch.
With time to prepare I made a note of the instructions provided about the location, where to park and how to access the estuary and the recommendation that any attempt to find the bird be done at low tide. The tide tables indicated a low tide around 10 am for the Sunday so it seemed quite reasonable to leave home at about 8 am.
Another recommendation was to have a scope handy if available as the bird was likely to be a fair distance from the closest viewing spot so my Swarovski scope was the first item to be loaded into the car. I had recently purchased a new ball head for the scope to replace an old one that had become difficult to manoeuvre and I was looking forward to see how it functioned in the field (I’m glad to say it performed perfectly)
We duly got to the pin-drop spot at the small parking area, which had a full complement of cars but fortunately one was just pulling out and I slotted the Prado into place and set off down the narrow track, scope and tripod slung over my shoulder, leaving Gerda to enjoy the peace and quiet with her knitting.
The track initially wound its way through bush, then over a narrow wooden foot bridge and onto the sands of the estuary. A birder heading the other way turned out to be Rudi, another Mossel Bay birder and after greeting each other he pointed me in the general direction of where he had just seen the Oystercatcher.
Armed with that knowledge, I found a spot to set up the scope, taking care to avoid the softer sands which would have swallowed my sandals if I wasn’t wary (all proof of how hazardous twitching can be). I scanned the distant river close to a Tern roost and within a minute had found the Oystercatcher and locked onto it with the scope. I allowed myself a little victory punch in my imagination – success!
For the next 40 minutes I tried getting closer to where the bird was hanging out, with some success although the soft mud of the estuary at low tide thwarted my attempt constantly as I picked my way across the drier parts to a better vantage point.
Satisfied with the views I had enjoyed, I made my way in hopscotch fashion to the main pathway back to the car, passing a group of birders who had just arrived but were less fortunate as a passing helicopter had caused the Tern roost and surrounding birds to rise up and fly off.
My only regret was not having my camera, which I left in the car as the scope and tripod was quite a burden without a camera dangling from my shoulder as well. Plenty of excellent photos have been posted on various birding groups and the superb image below was taken by a birder who rented a canoe so as to get closer to the bird – included here with the photographer’s kind permission.
Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus (Bonttobie)
This species is a rare but annual visitor from its breeding grounds across the Palearctic region from Iceland to China. Those found in southern Africa are thought to originate from Siberia and prefer to feed by probing for invertebrates on mudflats, having a longer bill than the African Black Oystercatcher which generally feeds on mussels.
The illustrations below are from Chamberlain’s Waders, written and illustrated by Faansie Peacock and show the unmistakeable pied appearance of the Eurasian Oystercatcher compared to the all black plumage of the African Black Oystercatcher.
On our way back home we stopped at a roadside restaurant for a light lunch of their home-made pie and salads – it crossed my mind that I had seen a Sea Pie in Plett and eaten a Pie near the Sea in Plett, all in the same morning……..