Today I went with a couple friends to kayak on the Guana River. We left from the boat launch at the dam a little after 9:00 in the morning. The tide was going out, so we had an easy outward run. There was no wind and the water was still. The only movement in the water came from our paddles, our wakes, the occasional mullet leaping out of the water, and the Forster’s terns diving for fish. There were feathers floating on the water and I tried to get a sharp image, but we were moving just enough that I could not get a good focus point on such a small object.
After almost an hour and half on a leisurely paddle out, we turned around to come back just as we started to see American oystercatchers flying in singles and groups heading back up the river. American oystercatchers have a bright orange-red bill, a red eye-ring, and a yellow eye. It is easy to see the long, bright bill even from a distance. At low-tide, they look for clams, oysters, and other mollusks to eat. They use their bill to loosen the muscle that keeps the shell closed making it easy to open the shell. As the tide was lowering, the oyster beds became exposed. The oystercatchers were heading for those beds.
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, American oystercatchers nest in shallow scrapes in the sand or shell in open or sparsely vegetated beaches. The chicks leave the nest within hours but remain dependent on their parents for food for at least two months. Coastal development and shoreline armoring have resulted in extensive habitat loss and their breeding areas are vulnerable to boaters, pets, predators, and bad weather. Pollutants can affect the abundance and distribution of mollusks which affects the food availability. Although not Federally listed, Florida has listed oystercatchers as State-designated threatened. In Florida, nests are often protected with temporary symbolic fencing and signs. My personal experience as a bird steward has been that people often ignore this fencing, particularly photographers. I have also seen people allow their pets to run free through the colony. Disturbances cause the parents to fly away, leaving their young vulnerable. Bird stewards attend to the fenced off colonies on week-ends and holidays to educate people about the birds. We often have a scope that allows people to get a good look at the birds without having to get too close.
The wind picked up on our way back and the tide, current, and wind were against us. There was more work involved to paddle back on the return trip. If we sat still to watch the wildlife, we started floating back down the river. We got a good look at some oystercatchers on the shellfish beds on the way back as well as some of the other birds that find food in the salt marsh. It was a beautiful day to enjoy the wildlife.