Ten years ago, the first-ever survey of the American Oystercatchers in the United States found only 11,000 birds and a population in decline.


American Oystercatchers – large, colorful shorebirds that live in a narrow band of coastal habitat from Canada to South America – were not able to raise enough chicks because of pressure from predators, habitat loss and disturbance from human activities.


Since then, the American Oystercatcher Working Group (led by Manomet’s Shiloh Schulte) and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) developed and then implemented a recovery plan.


Recent studies have shown that the plan is not just working, but is surpassing expectations.


The recovery initiative now includes 25 partners in 17 states and 3 countries. The organizations are voluntarily implementing the protection measures in the plan, sharing information on management techniques and research results and using a common monitoring strategy.


“The results have been nothing short of remarkable,” wrote Jeff Trandahl, NFWF’s executive director, in the Fish and Wildlife Service’s fall newsletter. “Based on projections from monitoring of nesting populations, the oystercatcher population decline may have not only been halted but completely turned around … It appears oystercatcher numbers have increased four percent in just 48 months. As wildlife professionals know, a reversal of this magnitude during such a short time is rarely seen.”


Schulte has spent much of the last several weeks in a small airplane, conducting aerial surveys of American Oystercatcher populations in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. Schulte will eventually survey New Jersey and Virginia while a second observer will survey Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas. These are only the second comprehensive aerial surveys since 2003.


Because populations were already declining 10 years ago, Schulte said he was hoping to find that populations were equal to the first survey. That result would confirm the good news from the projections from nesting population monitoring – that populations went down and are recovering.


“We have to go through and do the corrections. We only have the raw numbers, but it’s not looking like there’s been a major crash,” Schulte said. “In some cases, the numbers are remarkably stable, with the same number of birds on an island that there were 10 years ago.”


In Florida, Schulte found that some major roost sites had been eroded away, and birds have resorted to roosting on docks.


“That does mean that there’s probably a higher rate of disturbance,” he said.


Ultimately, however, Schulte is encouraged by the initial results of the aerial survey.


“If our recovery initiative wasn’t working we would have expected to see a population decline, possibly a very significant one,” he said. “In the areas we’ve covered before correction, we don’t see a population decline. Five or 10 years from now, there should be an increase.”


– Dave McGlinchey