Individual and age differences in the feeding ecology of Oystercatchers Haematopus ostralegus wintering on the Exe Estuary, Devon

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Abstract

The habitats and foods used by a sample of marked individuals and by the whole population of Oystercatchers Haematopus ostralegus wintering on the Exe estuary, South Devon, are described. In the spring and early summer, only a few hundred immatures were present. Two thousand adults and several hundred juveniles arrived in late summer from the breeding grounds and remained until the following spring. The majority of the birds were then adults. At low water, most adults fed on the mussel Mytilus edulis beds and ate mussels. Most individuals specialised on this prey and ate little else. Some adults fed on mud-flats and sandflats within the estuary and along the coast, and specialised on a mixture of Nereis diversicolor and Scrobicularia plana or on Cerastoderma edule or Littorina spp. Though some juveniles ate mussels from the time they arrived, most did not. In winter, they took Scrobicularia on mudflats, earthworms Lumbricidae and leatherjackets Tipulidae larvae in fields and Spisula and mussels along the coast. At other times of year they mainly ate Nereis. However, as they grew older, more birds began to specialise on mussels, especially in their second, third and fourth summers when the adults were away. At high water, most birds roosted at the mouth of the estuary or along the coast. However, several hundred fed in the fields in winter with more doing so late in the winter on warm days on Neap tides when less time was available for feeding on the estuary in daylight. Birds feeding on Nereis and Scrobicularia at low water were most often seen in the fields, irrespective of age. Birds feeding on Mytilus and Littorina occurred there rarely, but no bird eating Cerastoderma was seen there. The findings are discussed in relation to age differences in feeding skills and ability to compete successfully with other birds.

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