Variable oystercatcher/tōrea
Iimage: Sam O'Leary ©

Introduction

The variable oystercatcher is a large heavily-built shorebird. Adults have black upperparts, their underparts vary from all black, through a range of ‘smudgy’ intermediate states to white.

Variable oystercatcher (Haematopus unicolor) occur around most of the coastline of New Zealand, and breed most commonly on sandy beaches, sandspits and in dunes.

They are very vocal; loud piping is used in territorial interactions and when alarmed. Chicks are warned of danger with a sharp, loud ‘chip’ or ‘click’.

Their status is 'Endemic, Recovering'.

Appearance

Adults have black upperparts, their underparts vary from all black, through a range of ‘smudgy’ intermediate states to white. The proportion of all-black birds increases as you head south.

Variable oystercatcher/tōrea. Photo © Sabine Bernert.
Variable oystercatcher/tōrea occur around most of the coastline of New Zealand

They have a conspicuous long bright orange bill (longer in females), and stout coral-pink legs; their eyes have a red iris and the eye-ring is orange.

The pied morph (the form that has both dark and light colours) of the variable oystercatcher can be confused with the South Island pied oystercatcher.

Diet

Variable oystercatchers eat a wide range of coastal invertebrates, including molluscs and crustaceans which they open either by pushing the tip of the bill between shells and twisting, or by hammering. They occasionally eat small fish and a range of terrestrial invertebrates, including earthworms.

Nesting and breeding

They breed in monogamous pairs and defend territories vigorously against neighbours. Nests are normally simple scrapes in the sand and the 2–3 eggs are laid from October onwards. Incubation is shared and takes about 28 days.

The chicks fly at 6–7 weeks old and late chicks may not fledge until March. Chicks are vigorously protected by both parents, often well after fledging. Adults show high fidelity to their mate and the site.

You can help

Help protect New Zealand's native birds

  • Volunteer with DOC or other groups to control predators and restore bird habitats.
  • Don’t throw rubbish into water ways or storm drains.
  • Set traps for stoats or rats on your property. Get more information from your local DOC office.
  • Put a bell on your cat's collar, feed it well, and keep it indoors at night.
  • Plant a range of native plants that provide food year-round to encourage birds into your garden.
When visiting parks, beaches, rivers, and lakes
  • Only take dogs to areas that allow them, and keep your dog under control.
  • Prevent the spread of pests. Check your gear for mice and rats when visiting pest-free islands.
  • Use available access ways to get to the beach. Stay out of fenced-off areas. Leave nesting birds alone.
  • Get your dog trained in avian awareness, and help save forest birds like kiwi and weka.
  • Follow the water care code. Keep water craft speed to 5 knots within 200 metres of the shore.
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