Adult and juvenile American Oystercatchers feeding side by side

Adult and juvenile American OystercatchersAdult and juvenile American Oystercatchers feeding side by side – Nikon D200, handheld, f7.1, 1/750, ISO 160, Nikkor 80-400mm VR at 400mm, natural light

In 2008 I spent several months during the summer watching an American Oystercatcher family from the time the chicks were tiny until one of the chicks became independent. Actually it was until both chicks were independent, one seemed to be ready to leave the parents quite early and I lost track of it after several days, the Oystercatcher chick above stayed close to the parents well into the fall.

There are two species of Oystercatchers in North America, American and Black. I am very familiar with American Oystercatchers but have yet to have my lens on a Black Oystercatcher, I suppose that is something I need to add to my bucket list.

Oystercatchers are monogamous and very territorial, both incubate their young but the female spends more time at it. Oystercatchers have been known to “egg dump” and leave their eggs in the nests of other species like gulls and abandon them to be raised by the other birds. I would love to witness and photograph that because seeing a gull raising an oystercatcher would be fascinating and probably quite amusing too.

Until 1843 Oystercatchers were called “Sea Pie”. What a name.

I like the intimate feeling my image above conveys with my lens a small window into the world of this oystercatcher family. I also like how the prey is shown right in the middle of the juvenile’s open bill.


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Adult American Oystercatcher among Sea Purslane

Adult American Oystercatcher among Sea PurslaneAdult American Oystercatcher among Sea Purslane – Nikon D200, handheld, f6.3, 1/640, ISO 200, Nikkor 80-400mm VR at 400mm, natural light, ©2009

I like to include habitat in my images when I am able to do so, especially when the habitat doesn’t obstruct the view of my subject or when the habitat helps to define a sense of place. I have taken hundreds of images of American Oystercatchers in or near water and that shows only a part of the habitat where these shorebirds can be found, they can also be found among stands of Sea Oats, Spartina or as shown in this image, Sea Purslane.

I was at Fort De Soto and Egmont Key from before sunrise to well after sunset the day I photographed this American Oystercatcher in late evening light. I was taking a Florida Master Naturalist course and our class met on Egmont Key that day so I thought I might as well photograph at Fort De Soto’s north beach before I hopped onto the ferry to Egmont Key and by the time I took the ferry back to Fort De Soto I figured I might as well stay for sunset and see if I could capture the “Green Flash” as the sun set. I didn’t see the green flash that night but I was thrilled to be there as the sun dipped below the horizon. I was exhausted, sweaty but very happy to have enjoyed the day so thoroughly.


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American Oystercatcher with prey

American Oystercatcher with preyAmerican Oystercatcher with prey – Nikon D200, handheld, f6.3, 1/1600, ISO 250, Nikkor 80-400mm VR at 400mm, natural light 

American Oystercatchers were among my favorite shorebirds to photograph at Fort De Soto County Park’s north beach when I lived in Florida. Their bright orange bills, pink legs, black & white plumage and bright yellow eyes rimmed in red always fascinated me plus their behavior and distinctive call often amused me. I photographed this adult Oystercatcher as it hunted for prey in the shallow water of a tidal lagoon and was pleased to get this image with a tiny mollusk in its bill.

I’ve been fairly busy recently, I hope to get caught up on thanking you all for the kind comments that you have left on my posts this past week.


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American Oystercatchers in Florida

american-oystercatcher-chick-mia-mcpherson-7865Resting American Oystercatcher juvenile – Nikon D200, handheld, f6.3, 1/640, ISO 200, Nikkor 80-400mm VR at 400mm, natural light

This juvenile American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus) belonged to a family that I followed for a few months at Fort De Soto County Park in Florida from the time the chicks were two days old until they left the adults. I’d written about them here.

I like the resting pose and the eye contact I got from the young Oystercatcher and the background of the Spartina marsh. It was a great deal of fun to observe and photograph this Oystercatcher family for three and a half months.

American Oystercatcher adultAmerican Oystercatcher adult – Nikon D200, handheld, f6.3, 1/1600, ISO 250, Nikkor 80-400mm VR at 400mm, natural light

I was on on Egmont Key when I photographed this adult American Oystercatcher, I was in a Florida Master Naturalist class at the time and we spent the day there.  The class instructor cut her foot open while jumping off of the boat she came on, I cut my knee open and ruined a brand new pair of hiking pants by kneeling on a broken shell within ten minutes of getting off of the ferry from Fort De Soto and about mid day we saw a boat get swamped by waves on the western shore of the island. Despite all of those mishaps it was a great day to be out there.

I adored the color of the water in the background of this image, a wonderful turquoise blue that reminded me of the Caribbean. Or the water off of the coast of New South Wales.

I don’t get to see or photograph Oystercatchers here in Utah but I still dream about these shorebirds and can hear their calls when I look at the thousands of images I took of them.


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Three and a half months with a young American Oystercatcher

In 2008 I had the great pleasure of observing and photographing a family of American Oystercatchers from the day after the chicks hatched until three and a half months later. It is difficult to explain how amazing it feels to witness the growth of the chicks over a long period of time, I can tell you that I felt extremely privileged.

american-oystercatcher-chicks-mia-mcpherson-2753American Oystercatcher with two-day old chicks – Nikon D200, handheld, f8, 1/500, ISO 200, Nikkor 80-400mm VR at 400mm, natural light

I found this adult American Oystercatcher family with these two-day old chicks on Fort De Soto’s north beach on June 13, 2008.

I have very strong ethics about nesting birds and chick photography and gave these beauties a lot of distance between where they were located and where I laid down to photograph them. This image represents 36% of the original frame which is far more than I normally crop but I would rather crop heavily and have the chicks small in the frame than to risk upsetting them or stressing the adults. These chicks and the adult were relaxed because I didn’t intrude into their comfort zone and I also laid very still so that I wouldn’t startle them by making any sudden moves. The young Oystercatchers rested and poked around in the sand while the adult preened and fluffed its feathers. I stayed just a few minutes with the birds and moved on.

The bills of the chicks are tiny compared to the adult’s bill and the coloration of the bill and their plumage blends in quite well with their surroundings.

Eight day old American Oystercatcher chick in low lightEight day old American Oystercatcher chick in low light – Nikon D200, handheld, f5.6, 1/500, ISO 250, Nikkor 80-400mm VR at 400mm, natural light

A week later I found the Oystercatcher family foraging on north beach very early in the morning, there was just enough light to capture a few images of them before they moved into the spartina marsh. This chick was on a mound of sand at the shoreline poking its bill into the wet sand.

Again, this is a large crop from the original frame. I stayed quite some distance from the young chicks and the adults that were close by.

Thirteen day old American Oystercatcher chickThirteen day old American Oystercatcher chick – Nikon D200, handheld, f6.3, 1/200, ISO 320, Nikkor 80-400mm VR at 400mm, natural light

Five days later the chicks are getting bigger, their bills and legs are longer and they ventured further away from the adults. Their bills are also more colorful.  Feather shafts are visible on the wings. The chicks still need to be fed by the parents because their bills aren’t strong enough to open the bivalves that are their prey.

This is also a big crop.

Twenty-one day old American Oystercatcher chickTwenty-one day old American Oystercatcher chick – Nikon D200, handheld, f6.3, 1/160, ISO 320, Nikkor 80-400mm VR at 400mm, natural light

At twenty-one days old the bill and legs have gotten even longer and the chicks have gotten more adventurous. They wander further from the adults and appear very curious about what is food and what isn’t. The back and head plumage is darker.

Large crop.

Thirty-eight day old American Oystercatcher chickThirty-eight day old American Oystercatcher chick – Nikon D200, handheld, f8, 1/400, ISO 200, Nikkor 80-400mm VR at 400mm, natural light

At thirty-eight days old this Oystercatcher chick is almost the same size as the adult, the bill has gotten strong enough to pry open its prey and it can fly. I thought that about this time that the other chick had died because I wasn’t seeing it with the adults or its sibling but later found it much further down the beach feeding independently, perhaps it was the “rebel” fledgling.

By this time I could lay very still and the youngster would approach me so I didn’t have to crop as heavily.

Seventy-three day old American OystercatcherSeventy-three day old American Oystercatcher – Nikon D200, handheld, f7.1, 1/800, ISO 250, Nikkor 80-400mm VR at 400mm, natural light

At seventy-three days of age the immature Oystercatcher was fairly independent but it still kept close to the adults. Its bill has just a few millimeters to grow until it is as large as its parents.

 Oops – I pressed publish instead of save draft last night, there are more images to come…

Seventy-nine day old American Oystercatcher with adultSeventy-nine day old American Oystercatcher with adult – Nikon D200, handheld, f6.3, 1/640, ISO 320, Nikkor 80-400mm VR at 400mm, natural light

On day seventy-nine the young Oystercatcher was as large as the adult and was still staying with the adults. Its bill  and eyes were still darker than the parents which made it easier to identify the immature bird.

79 day old American Oystercatcher foragingSeventy-nine day old American Oystercatcher foraging – Nikon D200, handheld, f6.3, 1/640, ISO 200, Nikkor 80-400mm VR at 330mm, natural light

By day seventy-nine if I laid very still the Oystercatcher would approach me rather closely, here I had to zoom back to get the bird in focus. In this image I can see that the eye is getting lighter and will soon start to change to the lemony yellow color of the adults.

American Oystercatcher at 103 days oldAmerican Oystercatcher at 103 days old – Nikon D200, handheld, f6.3, 1/2500, ISO 320, Nikkor 80-400mm VR at 400mm, natural light

By day 103 the Oystercatcher chick spent most of its time foraging alone but the adults were often within sight. Except for the eye and bill color this young shorebird looked, sounded and acted like its parents.

Due to inclement weather and other obligations I wasn’t able to spend as much time looking for and photographing this bird after this date. I spotted it once again at what would have been day 122 and took a few images of it that I grossly over exposed so I am not sharing those (I only kept one to remind me of the date). On day 122 the young birds eyes were a dark yellow and the bill was losing the black tip.

I believe at about that time the adults may have chased the young bird out of their territory because I didn’t photograph it again.

Adult American Oystercatcher in the surf of the Gulf of MexicoAdult American Oystercatcher in the surf of the Gulf of Mexico, February 2009

Or did I? This adult Oystercatcher photographed in February of the next year might have been the bird I photographed the year before, it would be very difficult to tell. Or the bird may have picked a new territory nearby on Shell or Egmont Key.

I had such an amazing time watching that young bird grow up and felt I had been given a unique opportunity to follow its growth.

American Osytercatcher on nest with eggsAmerican Oystercatcher on nest with eggs – May 2009

In May of 2009 I photographed this American Oystercatcher from behind the boundary ropes on its nest with three eggs, it may have been the bird I followed the year before but I will never know. I moved from Florida that summer and didn’t have time to photograph more American Oystercatcher chicks growing up.

Nesting boundary signNesting boundary sign

  • Do not approach too closely
  • If the birds show any sign of distress, back away
  • Don’t trim leaves, twigs or branches to get a clearer shot, you may inadvertently attract predators or cause the eggs/chicks to over heat
  • Follow local, state and federal guidelines concerning nesting birds
  • Don’t harass the birds to get an action shot
  • Don’t stay a long time with nesting birds or chicks, that disrupts their normal behavior

For more information on the ethics of photographing nesting birds or chicks:  the Principles of Birding Ethics published by the American Birding Association. Also NANPA’s Ethical Practices (pdf)


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