Every once in a while a somewhat unplanned visit to a location can turn into one of your most memorable wildlife experiences. That is exactly what happened on the evening I spent with a couple of American Oystercatcher Families.
I started my morning with a 3am wakeup and a 2 hour drive to be on a central New Jersey beach to work with Piping Plover chicks. That turned out to be a wonderful trip and I got to enjoy a beautiful sunrise on a clear day with some good friends. We wrapped up the morning shoot before 8am and everyone headed home. A few days prior I had been thinking of starting the day with my friends then scouting different areas then resting in the middle of the day and finishing up with my first ever visit to Nickerson Beach in Lido Beach on Long Island, New York.
When the day came, the forecast looked promising and I decided to go for it. I left my friends and scouted a few more locations in NJ, stopped to grab lunch, then drove a couple more hours to get to Nickerson Beach. I arrived pretty early in bad light but walked out just to get a lay of the land. I had not gone for any specific species but figured I could photograph what ever was around. In addition to a large Black Skimmer colony there were many nesting Common Terns and I saw lots of American Oystercatchers but none with chicks. There were a few sitting on eggs which was neat. I went back to my car, opened all the windows and took a nap for a couple of hours. It was going to be a long day!
I walked back onto the beach around 3:30 that afternoon. It was mostly overcast at this point so I ended up photographing a friendly flock of Black Skimmers sitting right on the beach near the ocean. There were times when the wind start picking up which made the sand blow all over and made it difficult to shoot low angle photos. There were points when I was using my left hand to block the sand from blowing up into my eye while I was shooting. It did make for some interesting photos though. After a bit I left the Skimmer flock to wander around. I found more American Oystercatchers and this time I did see a pair with chicks but they were far into the dunes where I could not go. I eventually returned to the Skimmer flock and worked with them a bit more.
Around 5:45 another photographer joined me near the Skimmer flock. I talked with him a bit and he mentioned a family of American Oystercatchers not far from where we were shooting. I decided to go check it out and so began my evening with these fun and interesting birds.
I found the family of two adults and three chicks hanging out near the dunes area but within photography range. I slowly walked up then laid on the ground nearby. The chicks were pretty small and well within their cute stage of life. Some of the first photos I took were as the family rested and some of the chicks tucked in under a parent or the one above eventually fell asleep right out in the open. I even watched this one stand there and sway until it was too tired and fell back then closed its eyes. It was really funny to see. I had been laying with the family about an hour at this point so they were very comfortable with my presence.
I had now been hanging out with this family for nearly 2 hours when the adults decided to take the group down to the ocean. They left the confines of the roped off dune area and started the long trek about 500 feet down to the ocean with the three chicks in tow. I wanted to go along with them as well as photograph them along their journey so I would run out and around them trying to anticipate the direction they were heading, lay down and wait, hoping I guessed right. Each time the adults would walk the group right by me. They really didn’t seem to mind me being there, they had a huge wide open space and could have easily walked far away from me but they didn’t. I repeated this process 3 or 4 times as they made their way to the ocean. The adults finally got the chicks to the beach and had them take shelter near a life guard stand while one of them went off to get food for the chicks and the other parent would chase off any other bird that strayed to close. They were very protective!
While I was down near the ocean I now noticed another family of Oystercatchers that had only one chick. They were staying in a spot that allowed a great photo with the blue ocean and sky and at that time the light was starting to get nicer as the sun crept towards the horizon. After a little time with this new family I looked for the original family of 5 and noticed they had made their way mostly back to the dunes where I was originally with them. Since they were generally more active I walked back up the beach to hang with them again.
It was now after 7:30 and I had been photographing the American Oystercatchers for roughly 2 hours. When I caught back up with the original family the light was beautiful and the adults were flying back and forth from the ocean to feed the chicks. As soon as an adult would return, the trio of chicks would run as fast as they could to the adult to get to the food first. Sometimes the chicks would get a piece of food and chase each other around trying to steal the food. It was funny to watch but a little sad at times watching the runt of the group always get beat out for food.
One of my favorite series came when just one of the chicks ran out to get food from a returning adult. The photo below as well as the lead photo of this story are from that series. The catch was too large for the chick to eat so the adult would tear off tiny pieces and hand them off to the tiny chick. I was able to capture this interaction many times and the chick would approach from different directions so I got to photograph this a bunch of ways which was amazing. It was also great just to witness this wonderful behavior.
After a while the family started to settle down and the whole dune area started to become fully shaded from the setting sun. I thought this would be a good time to check out the other family down by the ocean where there was still plenty of sun. I easily found them and one of the adults had just left to catch food for the single chick. This time I positioned myself specifically to capture the birds backlit with the setting sun. Everything was washed in a golden glow and looked amazing through the lens. Not long after I settled down in the sand with this group, one of the adults returned with some food. The chick ran right over to the adult and gave me a near perfect profile of the pair. The adult dropped the food to give the chick a chance to try and grab it and I captured this moment of the chick just before it grabbed the food. The orange sky and dramatic glow from the backlit sun was exactly what I was looking for. This is one of my personal favorite photos that I’ve ever taken and I love the glow of the chicks downy feathers and the big orange bill of the adult.
Not long after that another special moment happened. One of the parents left to get food and the second parent left to chase off an intruder. The single chick was left alone on the wide open beach. It began to search for shelter and started to head my way. It slowly approached me as I photographed the little fluff ball. At one point I noticed it was too close to focus on so I took my eye from the camera and just watched it. It came with 3–4 feet of me and I’m pretty sure it was going to use me for shelter when one of the parents returned and gently ushered it away. It was so neat to see this tiny chick so unafraid of me that it walked right up. I am still curious what would have happened had the adult not returned so soon.
I spent a little while longer photographing this family in the setting sun. At times the wind would gust and I could see a little sand storm glowing in the sun. I photographed the chick by itself, the adults alone and many interactions of the family. The setting sun continued to give me some gorgeous summer light as it was nearing the horizon. The last minutes of sunlight falling over the beach were beautiful.
I took my last photo nearly 2.5 hours after I found the family of Oystercatchers. That evening on Nickerson Beach with just me and the families of American Oystercatchers is one I will most likely never forget. I walked off the beach as the sun touched the horizon with a huge grin on my face. I had a long drive ahead of me but I knew it would be worth any amount of traffic for the experience I just had.