Skitters: The Black Oystercatcher

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Photo: Jags Brown

Graham Richard —

Gaaw Xaad Kil: Sgadaang

HlGaagilda Xaayda Kil: sgaada.nga

When Xaw’s North Wind son brought the daughter of Xyuu Southeaster to live at his father’s house, she found it covered in icicles. These were her father-in-law’s fingers. When she inadvertently broke some, Xaw grew angry and trapped his daughter-in-law in ice and snow while she searched the shore for Skats’aguu Limpets. After some time she called her father from the south, singing continually for his help. Then the wind blew from Gangxid Kun, the southern-most point of Gangxid Gwaay.yaay Kunghit Island. The ice trapping Xyuu’s daughter melted. Then Xyuu himself arrived attended by black clouds full of rain and Xaw’s icicles fell.

Today sgaada.nga Black Oystercatcher skitters along the coasts of Haida Gwaii on crooked legs, still white and bent from the cold Xaay brought upon her for breaking his fingers. She pokes the shore with her long nose, reddened with Xaw’s frost. Their distinctive, long legs never carry them far from shorelines where they forage.

Sgaada.nga are loyal mates and sometimes remain in pairs for much of their 15 to 22-year lifespan. Together couples defend territory where they dig small bowl-like scrapes, or ‘nests’, lined with shells and pebbles. There they lay two to three gray, speckled eggs, which are hearty enough to survive occasional submersion in cold water during their 28-day incubation period.

While the wee black bird might typically weigh a mere 22 ounces, sgaada.nga are top predators of their tiny intertidal world. Remains of prey show that sgaada.nga feast primarily on skats’aguu limpets, which appear to account for around 60% of their diet. Observations indicate they supplement meals with taaxaw mussels, t’aa chitons, GalGahlyaan abalone, with a touch of ts’aa’am crabs and whelk. They also eat gawduuwal barnacles and kunt’axung sand fleas. As a ‘keystone species’, their presence indicates an area is relatively healthy and usually full of mealtime favourites – and for sgaada.nga it seems it is always mealtime.

In Haida Gwaii scientists track sgaada.nga sightings to understand the coastal ecosystem’s general health. Ornithologists estimate that about 10,000 pairs of sgaada.nga live between the Aleutian Islands and Baja California. A large proportion breeds in Haida Gwaii.

In 2016, Laskeek Bay Conservation Society surveyed 120 km of shoreline and tracked banded sgaada.nga. Survey results help predict population density and thereby monitor ecological integrity. Populations in Gwaii Haanas appear healthy, with 0.88 breeding pairs per square km of surveyed coastline.

Fact: In Haida Gwaii oystercatchers don’t eat oysters.

More eyes are needed to accurately understand sgaada.nga populations and ecosystem health in Haida Gwaii. Anyone can become a citizen scientist! Should you spot sgaada.nga with her chilly, orange beak and frosty, crooked legs, report your sighting to Laskeek Bay Conservation Society at

Photo: Ashley Stocks

Photo: Jags Brown

Photo: Jags Brown

Photo: Jags Brown

Categories: Critters


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