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A beautiful design

Since reading Philip Hoare’s The Sea Inside I look at oystercatchers differently. He writes that the Eurasian oystercatcher:

…eats mostly mussels and cockles teased from the shore, using its greatest asset: a bone strengthened bill, part hammer, part chisel, able to prise open the biggest bivalves. Delicately coloured carrot-red to toucan-yellow – it might be made of porcelain – it a surprisingly sensitive probe. At its tip are specialised Herbst corposcules that allow the bird to sense its prey by touch as well as sight; an oystercatcher can forage as well by night as by day. Perpetually prospecting the beach, it stabs and pecks or ‘sows’ and ‘ploughs’, altering it methods to suit its prey.

what stayed with me is this:

It can even change the shape of its bill – the fastest-growing of any bird – morphing from blunt mussel-blade to fine worm-teaser in a matter of days.

Walking on the beach after a storm I picked up the body of an African oystercatcher that didn’t make it. Getting to see an oystercatcher up close is rare – and special – considering its wildness, holding it in my hands feels wrong somehow. They live on the edge always looking towards the sea – quick to fly when they sense people’s attention on them. They are not concerned with our world.

Recalling Philip Hoare’s words I studied the bill closely. It appears deceptively delicate, but considering that it is designed to withstand foraging abrasive mussel beds, the efficiency of its design is complete, allowing nature room to indulge in pure beauty.

More on African oystercatchers

According to the The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species there are an estimated 6000 African oystercatchers on earth.

The scientific name is Haematopus moquini. It means blood-foot (Haema: blood, topus: feet), named by Alfred Moquin-Tandon. Moquini’s blood-foot.

They are monogamous and can live for up to 35 years. Pairs have been observed to remain together for 18 years.

Afrikaans name: Swarttobie.