Not common good: very common not so good

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I seem to have become enthralled by distinctive birds with red beaks. First it was pukeko that took my heart (see my earlier blog). Now my latest passion is the oddly named variable oystercatcher, which – I was excited to discover – isn’t a common sighting. “Not common” is what my book says. The ratings go from “very common” through “common” and “quite common” to “not common” and “rare”, and after that it’s only “sanctuary birds”. The book doesn’t rate “extinct”; we have to use our imaginations for that one rather than my excellent (borrowed, thanks Pam) binoculars.

In my limited bird watching experience, an amateur’s enthusiastic identification of an uncommon bird almost always turns out to be a disappointing mis-identification. So, from my own recent experience: no, it probably isn’t a (rare) yellowhead, it’s probably a (very common) yellowhammer. And although it took me about a week to be sure, it wasn’t a (not common) New Zealand falcon circling over the bush, but the (very common) Australasian harrier. (A lovely sight, though, however common.)

But when I saw these distinctive birds on the local beach, I was in luck. (They didn’t agree: they hurried away complaining loudly in shrill voices about my intrusion into their space. They even complained again today when I returned, and they were about 40 metres away out on the tidal estuary: I couldn’t see them without binoculars but clearly, they could see me.) The thing is, there isn’t anything else that looks like this, so you can’t really mistake them for another bird.

But just why these black ones are called ‘variable’ is a mystery to me. Bird names are often puzzling – like the American red-bellied woodpecker that doesn’t actually have a red belly. What’s that about?

A variable oystercatcher, when it is actually variable, as opposed to when it’s black all over like the ones I saw, looks almost exactly like a pied oystercatcher, and they all say ‘kleep kleep’. The border between the colours is a bit smudgy on the variable ones, and not on the pied ones, but otherwise I don’t know how you’d know. (And how do they know? That’s another mystery.)

Why not call my ones ‘black oystercatchers’? Or is that just too damn obvious?

Anyway, tomorrow I’m raising my bird-watching game a notch or two. I’m going back to the beach to look at some dotterels. Banded ones are quite common; New Zealand ones are not common. Frankly, I look forward to meeting any of them.

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