Variable Oystercatcher


Variable Oystercatcher
Haematopus unicolor

Variable oystercatchers are endemic to New Zealand and have the distinction of being the only oystercatcher in the world to come in a variety of plumage schemes, hence the name.  They can be all black (as pictured) or varying degrees of black and white.  All have red eyes with red rims, orange beaks and pink legs. The only other species of oystercatcher to be found on mainland New Zealand is the South Island pied oystercatcher. There are a couple of things to look for when trying to distinguish between a pied variable oystercatcher and the South Island pied oystercatcher.  The variable oystercatcher is slightly larger and lacks a white tab at the front of the folded wing. Good luck!

Living along coastlines, variable oystercatchers probe sand, mud, and shallow water for marine worms, molluscs, crabs and small fish.  They may also be seen on wet coastal farmland probing for worms and other invertebrates. After pulling a tasty morsel from the sand or mud, they may carry it to clear water to rinse off the sediment.  Their long pointy bills come in handy for hammering, drilling and prising open shellfish. 

Their breeding season extends from October to December. Variable oystercatchers mate for life. Their nests are scrapes in the sand - often abutting boulders, driftwood, dunes and/or scrub - decorated with a few shells or twigs.  A typical clutch contains 2-3 eggs. Chicks can leave the nest at 2 days old, but remain with their parents for many weeks.  They are able to fly at 6 weeks. In winter variable oystercatchers may congregate in small flocks of 50 or more, though occasionally pairs remain in and defend their breeding territories year-round.

While their distribution extends along coastlines throughout New Zealand, they are considered uncommon.  Threats include habitat loss, predation, and human disturbance. 

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