African Oystercatcher (Haematopus moquini)

The African Oystercatcher Haematopus moquini is one of the iconic species of the coastline of the southwestern Africa. There is only one oystercatcher that breeds exclusively in Africa. So the “black” in African Black Oystercatcher is redundant, and is in the process of being dropped, in favour of the shorter name!

Identification

African Oystercatchers, especially the adults, are one of the easiest bird species to identify. It is the only species along the African coast with a black body and a bright red bill. They are noisy birds; listen to them here.

Identification of adult African Black Oystercatcher Haematopus moquini
David Kennedy, Kei Mouth, Eastern Cape. 29 September 2017. BirdPix 47729
Identification of juvenile African Black Oystercatcher Haematopus moquini
Keir Lynch, Gansbaai, Western Cape. 27 February 2020. BirdPix 105606

Habitat

African Oystercatchers are essentially confined to the shoreline. They occur on both rocky and sandy shores. They tend to be most abundant on shorelines which are sheltered, they are rarer on exposed shores, and absent from sections of coastlines where the ocean’s waves pound directly onto the bases of cliffs. On rocky shores, their daily cycles are driven by the tide. They feed in the intertidal zone at low tide, and loaf on rocks at high tide, often getting together in roosting groups. They feed at low tides during the night as well as during the day.

Habitat for African Black Oystercatcher rocky shore
African Oystercatcher habitat on a rocky shore at Betty’s Bay, Western Cape, South Africa. What makes this especially attractive to oystercatchers is the width of the rocky area exposed at low tide. There are lots of places to feed in this intertidal zone! Les Underhill, 31 December 2017. BirdPix 48719
Habitat for African Black Oystercatcher sandyy shore
Typical habitat for oystercatchers on a sandy beach. The beach has a fairly flat profile, and there are lots of mussels buried in it for food. Oystercatchers avoid steeply sloping high-energy beaches where the sand is continously scoured, and mussels are unable to settle. This is near Sedgefield, Western Cape, South Africa. David Kennedy, 23 September 2008. BirdPix 3041

Distribution

This is the SABAP2 distribution map for the African Oystercatcher. It occurs only along the coastline. In reality, the width of the distribution is even narrower than that shown on the map. In most places the strip of coastline in which you can find oystercatchers is about 50 m wide, from the lowest level of spring low tide, to a few metres above the spring high tide level. It is steadily expanding its breeding range northeastwards across KwaZulu-Natal. Vagrants have been recorded along the Angolan coast in the west, and in Mozambique in the east.

Distribution map for African Black Oystercatcher Haematopus moquini
SABAP2 distribution map for African Oystercatcher, download 06/06/2021. Details of map interpretation are here

Behaviour

African Oystercatchers are strongly territorial, and once they settle in a territory, they remain on it and defend it for the rest of the lives, up to 15 to 20 years. They are noisy birds, with lots of social interactions with their partners and their neighbours. Pairs do lots of ritualized ceremonies, as shown in the photo below.

Pair of African Black Oystercatchers displaying
Len de Beer, Gansbaai, Western Cape, 18 July 2005. BirdPix 8112

Breeding

The breeding season of African Oystercatchers coincides with the midsummer holiday period; most eggs are laid from November to February in South Africa, and about two months later in Namibia. The nests are just above the spring high tide level; the incubation period is about 30 days, so nests need to be high enough up the shore to avoid being washed away by two sets of spring tides. The nests cannot be made too far up the shore, because this would place them in the vegetation, and make the incubating bird vulnerable to predation by, for example, a mongoose.

Whether they are breeding on a rocky shore or a sandy beach, oystercatchers don’t go to lot of trouble building nests. They have a minimalist approach to nest architecture! It is best described as a scrape, and is sometimes lined with some seashells. Here are three examples.

Nest of for African Black Oystercatcher on rocky shore

The next nest, on a sandy beach, is in the dead centre of the photo, and contains two eggs:

Nest of African Black Oystercatcher on sandy shore

The nest has been placed in a bend in the kelp. There are small round stones scattered around, which look quite egg-like.

This “nest” illustrates the minimalist approach:

African Black Oystercatcher nest with three eggs

The parents take turns incubating the eggs. It is hard to believe how difficult it is to spot a black bird with a red dagger for a bill sitting on its eggs on a white sandy beach:

African Black Oystercatcher on its nest on sandy shore

… if you need a clue, the bird is near the right edge of the photo, and it is looking at the camera! Here it is close up:

close up of African Black Oystercatcher on its nest on sandy shore

Ultimately, two spring tides later, the eggs hatch, and a fluffball emerges. The second egg is pipped and the chick will emerge soon. The fluffball has dried off since it hatched. It’s a bit of packaging miracle how it could have squashed into an egg an hour or two earlier:

African Black Oystercatcher hatchlings

The chicks leave the nest within about 24 hours. They move up and down the shore with their parents, in rhythm with the tides. They are fed small pieces of mussels and limpets. They start to fly at about 40 days, when they reach 2/3rds of the adult mass. They hang around with their parents until they are about 100 days old. It is only then that their bills are strong to be able to prize shellfish off the rocks and feed themselves. It is a big commitment being an oystercatcher parent.

African Oystercatcher Gallery

Occasionally, and this happens in most bird species, the colouring goes completely haywire, and you have no idea what you are looking at. Like the bird on the left, gosh!

 Leucistic African Black Oystercatcher
Mark Booysen, Swartkops River estuary, Eastern Cape. 10 July 2013. Curated in both BirdPix 10392 and Birds with Odd Plumage BOP 180

Luckily, in this case, the aberrant bird is standing alongside an oystercatcher, so it is pretty obvious what it actually is. This bird did not produce normal amounts of melanin, the pigment that turns feathers black. So it ended up a motley brown. This condition is called leucism. (There is a section of the Virtual Museum that curates photographic records of Birds with Odd Plumage, BOP.)

If you are amazingly lucky you might encounter a flock of oystercatchers and have one that sticks out like a sore thumb. It clearly an oystercatcher, slightly smaller than the African Oystercatchers, but is white as well as black. It is clearly not a plumage aberration, it is too neatly patterned for that!

There is a Eurasian Oystercatcher in this flock
Les Underhill, Walvis Bay. 3 March 2007. BirdPix 1415

If you are in southern Africa, awesomely well done, you have found a vagrant, the Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus. (If you are in Africa north of the equator, this is the only oystercatcher you will encounter.)

Further resources: A selection of papers and a video:

More common names: Swarttobie (Afrikaans), Huîtrier de Moquin (French), Kapausternfischer (German), Ostraceiro-preto (Portuguese), Ostrero Negro Africano (Spanish)

Recommended citation format: Underhill LG 2021. African Oystercatcher Haematopus moquini. Biodiversity and Development Institute. Available online at http://thebdi.org/2021/06/07/african-black-oystercatcher-haematopus-moquini/

Les Underhill
Les Underhill
Prof Les Underhill has been Director of the Animal Demography Unit (ADU) at the University of Cape Town since it started in 1991. Although citizen science in biology is Les’s passion, his academic background is in mathematical statistics. He was awarded his PhD in abstract multivariate analyses in 1973 at UCT and what he likes to say about his PhD is that he solved a problem that no one has ever had. He soon grasped that this was not the field to which he wanted to devote his life, so he retrained himself as an applied statistician, solving real-world problems.