From my trusty blue kayak, I sat 15 feet below a massive rock outcropping cloaked in thick seabird guano and sparse vegetation. I was hoping for an adult black oystercatcher to arrive. I wasn’t the only one patiently waiting.
It was going to bring food to its two fuzzy chicks, just out of their eggs a few days prior. They were well hidden amongst the mass splattering of guano and the ashy-colored volcanic rock that characterizes the coastal island seascape surrounding Santa Cruz Island.
I’d been sitting there for a while and was timing the parent every time it left its brood. The attentive parent would be gone for up to 10 minutes at a time. It was feverishly foraging for food on a negative tide amongst the nearby clusters of acorn barnacles, mussels and purple sea urchins all within the teeming intertidal zone. When it arrived, it dropped the food off as the two hungry chicks, adorned in downy feathers, gobbled the slimy stuff down within seconds.
As I sat in my kayak, I anticipated when the parent arrived. After dropping the food off, the doting parent walked toward the edge of the weather-beaten bluff and took flight. It flew the same route each time to its reliable food source. On one occasion the parent arrived with an unlucky shire crab. On another occasion it landed with a worm in its beak. The other attentive parent kept the two chicks hidden from possible predation, standing watch like a Roman centurion.
It’s a big effort for black oystercatcher parents to raise their chicks to survival. Always lurking nearby and visible were opportunistic western gulls and crafty ravens. Stealthy predators were also hovering above, especially peregrine falcons concealed in the cliffs, but they also rely on their blinding speed to vanquish their prey.
The best defense for the chicks was their camouflage. They were born with tiny black beaks, not the bright orangish-red beaks that their parents possessed. As they continue to grow, their beaks will morph from jet black to orangish-red, resembling candy corn. And their soft, fluffy, downy feathers were the same color as the ashen-colored volcanic rock that concealed them. There have been times where the chicks were out in the open, but I couldn’t detect them as they melded in against that volcanic rock. If they didn’t move, they blended in perfectly.
Locating them from the kayak in choppy seas was especially difficult. The constant motion while bobbing in my kayak and drifting with the wind and current made it really challenging. Every couple of minutes I repositioned myself. When giant bladder kelp was available, I’d purposely wrap my leg with it to maintain my position, much like a sea otter.
At least one parent stayed with the chicks all the time, which are equipped with big, oversized feet right out of the egg. Those large feet helped them steady themselves in the loose, uneven volcanic rock. If they survived their first year, they will have grown into those salmon-colored feet. If both parents felt threatened by a predator, they’d fly off and their chicks instinctively hunkered down in crevices or beneath sparse vegetation growing out of those gritty volcanic crags.
I came back a week later to see how the two chicks and the parents were fairing. The parents were easy to locate because they make a lot of noise, and their bright orange beaks stand out against the rock. Where were their chicks though?
After several minutes of studying all the nooks and crannies of volcanic rock, I found one chick, which had grown a bit from a week ago. Unfortunately, the other chick was nowhere to be seen.
Life on the island can be harsh, especially for those ashy-colored fuzz balls relying on the color of the rock to survive. The cycle of life for oystercatchers will always challenging across the Channel Islands National Park.
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