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

Emergency hotline

Call 0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468) immediately if you see anyone catching, harming or killing native wildlife. 

Help protect our native birds

When visiting parks, beaches, rivers, and lakes
  • Only take dogs to areas that allow them, and keep them under control.
  • Check your gear for mice and rats when visiting pest-free islands.
  • Leave nesting birds alone.
  • Use available access ways to get to the beach. 
  • Avoid leaving old fishing lines on beaches or in the sea.
  • Follow the water care code and local navigation bylaws.
  • Don't drive on riverbeds, or keep to formed tracks if you have to.
Other ways to help
  • Get your dog trained in avian awareness.
  • Volunteer with DOC or other groups to control predators and restore bird habitats.
  • 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 dusk/dawn and at night.
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