"Here they're walking towards the decoy now which is exactly what we want them to do. They should go across our trap and at least one of them should get caught," Schulte explains.
The decoy looks exactly like an American oyster catcher--yellow, red-rimmed eyes, white belly, black cape, brown back, and a long, bright reddish orange beak. A knife-like beak, which makes it easier to pluck the meat out of oysters and clams.
The decoy is placed on a camouflaged carpet of fishing line
nooses next to a portable tape machine playing a recording of an alarmed oyster
catcher. Schulte says that oyster catchers are smart, territorial,
and will often charge the perceived invader, aggressively stomping their feed and
bobbing their heads to protect their turf.
"What we're trying to do today is catch an oyster catcher or two and put bands on them," Schulte says. "These birds can live 20 to 40 years. So we can actually track survival rates from year to year, we can track migration, and this really aids the ultimate goal, which is conservation of the species."
Schulte says there are only 10,000 of the birds in the United States. Around the northeast, somee of the largest populations are found in Massachusetts and New York. Many of these birds will spend their winters in the gulf in an area north of TampaBay. And because they return to the same spot every year, Schulte expects to lose at least 20% of the oyster catchers to the gulf oil spill.
Meredith Gutowski is a conservation specialist with the Shore Bird Recovery Project at Manomet where she focuses not just on the oyster catcher but on other shore birds. She says about 40 species pass through the gulf region. About half are considered a high priority for protection because of threats from habitat degeneration, development, and climate change.
"We have a species-specific action plan," Meredith explains. "It lists the primary threats to that species and it also lists where the most important sights are for that species."
Using a voluntary network of federal and state agencies, private land owners and others in the field, the sites are ranked by population. The more birds that congregate, the more important the site. Along the Texas gulf coast there are 5 with an international designation. That means they support populations of at least 100,000 birds each. Information about where and when the birds go has been uploaded to a GoogleEarth map of the gulf coast. Here, the same voluntary network on the ground can plan for what's ahead.
Gotowski clicks through the map, identifying migration routes and nesting points. She says that birds with long beaks that eat shellfish, such as the oystercatcher, or birds that dig deep into the sand will be contaminated by the oil spill long after the well is finally capped. That gives those on the ground a short window to put booms in place and undertake cleanups of beaches and protection of habitat that have not yet been affected by the oil spill.
Meanwhile back on Stony Point Dyke, an oyster catcher has been caught in the trap and is being banded, measured, and weighed. Shiloh Schulte looks the bird over as he completes the measurements and attaches the band. He bestows the oyster catcher with an appropriate nickname. "It felt skinny in the hand and it's 510 grams so it's a very skinny bird. Mr. Skinny, that's it, that's what he'll be from now on," he remarks.
With any luck, Schulte says that Mr. Skinny will avoid the oil-soaked gulf and come back to the same beach on Cape Cod to nest for the next 20 years.