Sooty oystercatcher (Haematopus fuliginosus)

Also known as: spectacled oystercatcher
GenusHaematopus (1)
SizeLength: 46 - 49 cm (2)
Weight550 - 774 g (2)
Top facts

The sooty oystercatcher is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

A large, powerful shorebird (3) (4) with a long, heavy bill (4), the sooty oystercatcher (Haematopus fuliginosus) is named for its entirely black plumage (2) (3) (4) (5). However, it does have a slightly greenish gloss (4), primarily on the neck and underparts (3).

Contrasting strongly with the sooty oystercatcher’s dark plumage, this species’ bill is a rich orange-yellow or red (2) (3), and its stout legs are pink (2) to bright pinkish-red (4). The sooty oystercatcher’s red eyes are surrounded by a red eye-ring (2) (4) (5), which is broader, puffier and more orange-yellow in colour in the subspecies Haematopus fuliginosus opthalmicus (2) (4). This subspecies also has slightly shorter wings and a heavier bill than the other subspecies, Haematopus fuliginosus fuliginosus (2).

The male and female sooty oystercatcher are very similar in appearance (2) (4), although the female is often slightly larger than the male, and has shorter wings and a broader bill (2). The juvenile sooty oystercatcher is similar to the adult birds, but is duller and browner (2) (4), with white or pale buff tips to most of its feathers (2). The brown eyes are surrounded by a pale yellow eye-ring, and the bill is a mixture of dull orange-grey and grey-black. The legs and feet of the juvenile sooty oystercatcher are dull grey, only gradually obtaining the brighter adult colour in its second year of life (4).

The sooty oystercatcher’s call is described as being a high-pitched, piping ‘tleepa tleepa tleepa tleepa’ (4).

The sooty oystercatcher is endemic to Australia, and can be found along the country’s entire coastline (4), as well as on Tasmania (2) (3) (6) and islands in the Bass Strait (3).

The two subspecies of sooty oystercatcher generally occupy slightly different ranges, with Haematopus fuliginosus fuliginosus being found across most of coastal Australia (4), from the Houtman Abrolhos Islands, along the south coast and up the eastern coast to Brisbane (2), and Haematopus fuliginosus opthalmicus being found on the coast and islands of northern Australia (2) (4). However, the ranges of the two subspecies do overlap on the Queensland coast (4).

Rocky shores are the preferred habitat of the sooty oystercatcher (2) (4) (5) (7), including rocky outcrops, headlands, offshore islands and exposed reefs (3) (8) (9).

The sooty oystercatcher can also be found on estuarine mudflats and sandy beaches (2) (3) (5) (7), particularly outside of the breeding season (2).

Found singly, in pairs or in small flocks (4) (5) (8), the sooty oystercatcher is generally considered to be a non-migratory species, although in some parts of its range it may move short distances to breed on rocky islands (2) (3).

The sooty oystercatcher eats a wide variety of invertebrate prey (8), including limpets, whelks, crustaceans, oysters, periwinkles and mussels, and it also occasionally eats dead fish (2) (7) (10). All oystercatcher species use a variety of techniques to attack their prey, including prising, probing, stabbing and hammering (2), and by employing these methods the sooty oystercatcher is able to defeat its heavily armoured prey, even tackling sea urchins (4).

The sooty oystercatcher breeds during spring and summer (4), from August to January (2), and is a monogamous species (11). A sooty oystercatcher clutch consists of between two and four eggs (2), although two is most common (2) (3). The eggs are a light stone colour, marked all over with dark brown or purplish blotches (3), and are laid in a shallow scrape in the ground (2) (4). The scrape is often located among boulders, and may be lined with shell fragments. The egg incubation and fledging periods of the sooty oystercatcher are unknown (2).

The sooty oystercatcher is not currently considered to be at risk of extinction, and has a very large range (12). However, population numbers in some parts of its range have decreased, although the causes of these declines are unknown. In regions supporting the greatest number of sooty oystercatchers, habitat loss could be a potential threat in the future (2).

The sooty oystercatcher is most abundant in south-central and south-eastern Australia and on Tasmania. However, a large proportion of this species’ total population can be found at just seven sites, which may be at risk from habitat loss. Conservation action in these areas is considered necessary to ensure that the sooty oystercatcher does not become a threatened species (2).

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  1. IUCN Red List (September, 2012)
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1996) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 3: Hoatzin to Auks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. Gould, J. (1865) Handbook to the Birds of Australia. Volume 2. John Gould, London.
  4. Geering, A., Agnew, L. and Harding, S. (2007) Shorebirds of Australia. CSIRO Publishing, Victoria, Australia.
  5. Marchant, J., Hayman, P. and Prater, T. (2010) Shorebirds. A&C Black Publishers, London.
  6. Colwell, M.A. (2010) Shorebird Ecology, Conservation, and Management. University of California Press, California.
  7. Joseph, L. and Olsen, P. (2011) Stray Feathers: Reflections on the Structure, Behaviour and Evolution of Birds. CSIRO Publishing, Victoria, Australia.
  8. Daniels, C.B. (2011) A Guide to Urban Wildlife: 250 Creatures You Meet on Your Street. HarperCollins Australia, Australia.
  9. Sibley, C.G. and Monroe Jr, B. (1991) Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. Yale University Press, Connecticut.
  10. Barker, R. and Vestjens, W. (1989) Food of Australian Birds 1. Non-passerines. CSIRO Publishing, Victoria, Australia.
  11. Thompson, D.B.A. (2001) Shorebirds. Voyageur Press, Minneapolis.
  12. BirdLife International (September, 2012)