Three and a half months with a young American Oystercatcher

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

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.

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.

 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 young American 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 check out the Principles of Birding Ethics published by the American Birding Association.



  1. Julie Brown July 7, 2012 at 7:57 am

    What a delightful series, Mia. How wonderful to be able to observe their development and to spend time with them.

    • Mia McPherson July 7, 2012 at 4:35 pm

      Thank you Julie, I was trilled to observe and photograph them for so long.

  2. Vishal Gokhale July 5, 2012 at 10:22 pm

    Great pictures. BTW Did you notice this?
    When I saw your pictures, I first thought that it was probably you who’d taken that pic.

    • Mia McPherson July 7, 2012 at 6:06 am

      Thanks Vishal, Oystercatchers are great subjects.

      I hadn’t noticed the image that you linked to, I don’t enter contests and don’t keep up with the winners. The person who took that photo did very well considering the conditions they described!

  3. Tammy Karr July 5, 2012 at 8:06 pm

    Incredible post Mia! I can only imagine how incredible it must have been to watch these Oystercatchers grow. The rapid transformation is amazing. Thank you for sharing this experience!

    • Mia McPherson July 7, 2012 at 6:04 am

      Thanks for commenting Tammy, it was an experience I won’t forget!

  4. Susan July 5, 2012 at 5:48 pm

    What a wonderful post, with great photography. It must have been awesome to watch the oyster catcher grow.

    • Mia McPherson July 7, 2012 at 6:03 am

      Susan, it was awesome to watch the young Oystercatcher grow up. Thanks for your comment.

  5. Carol Mattingly July 5, 2012 at 4:19 pm

    Absolutely amazing post Mia. I watched intently as you described everything that was changing on the little ones. But those first few of the little bitty guys are the best ones. It’s the cute factor. Carol

    • Mia McPherson July 5, 2012 at 4:33 pm

      Thank you Carol. The tiny chicks were adorable little balls of fluff!

  6. Julie G. July 5, 2012 at 2:04 pm

    What a glorious experience for you! Outstanding documentation, Mia! I really admire how respectful you are of the birds. Each and every photograph in this wonderful post is magnificent!

    • Mia McPherson July 5, 2012 at 4:28 pm

      Thank you Julie for your comments on these images and on my field ethics.

  7. M. Firpi July 5, 2012 at 1:33 pm

    Great chronology. Those beaks digging in the sand are quite a sight.

    • Mia McPherson July 5, 2012 at 4:27 pm

      Thanks so much for your comment on these images Maria.

  8. Prairie Birder July 5, 2012 at 11:48 am

    This is a wonderful post, Mia, it is so neat to see how the Oystercatcher grows through out the months. Your photos are exquisite!

    • Mia McPherson July 5, 2012 at 4:25 pm

      Prairie Birder, thanks so much for commenting. As I edited these images it took me back to the time when I was photographing them and I also felt it was wonderful to see the chronological aging in the photos.

  9. Vincent Mistretta July 5, 2012 at 11:47 am

    Thanks for sharing this great adventure. Its always fun to live such an opportunity through someone elses eyes. Great pictures as usual.

    • Mia McPherson July 5, 2012 at 4:24 pm

      Thank you Vincent, you are very kind!

  10. syl July 5, 2012 at 11:41 am

    You really had a once in a lifetime experience. Thanks for sharing..Your photos capture the whole event of growing up..take care.

    • Mia McPherson July 5, 2012 at 4:23 pm

      Syl, it was a lifetime experience and one I will never forget. Thanks much for your comment.

  11. Ron Dudley July 5, 2012 at 9:30 am

    Excellent post Mia. I really enjoyed “watching” the development of the chick(s). Of all the species you post from Florida I’m most jealous of the oystercatchers and Reddish Egrets

    • Mia McPherson July 5, 2012 at 11:14 am

      Thanks Ron, I’m glad you enjoyed this post!

      About this:

      Of all the species you post from Florida I’m most jealous of the oystercatchers and Reddish Egrets.

      Let’s go visit Shannon and I’ll put you right where you need to be for Reddish Egret and American Oystercatcher photos.

  12. Linda Rockwell July 5, 2012 at 8:56 am

    Outstanding photo series Mia! What fun and what a privilege to see these youngsters grow up. Love every one of your photos!

    • Mia McPherson July 5, 2012 at 11:11 am

      It was fun and a priviledge to photograph these American Oystercatchers growing up. Thanks so much for your kind comment Linda.

  13. Bill Hutson July 5, 2012 at 7:40 am

    Wonderfully documented series and amazingly photographed as usual. 🙂

    • Mia McPherson July 5, 2012 at 11:10 am

      Thanks Bill, American Oystercatchers are fascinating.

      I hope you are getting some rain in your part of Utah, we are here and it feels delicious!

  14. Scott (@NESASK) July 5, 2012 at 7:33 am

    Terrific images, Mia. Very interesting to see the plumage, bill, and eye color change as the the young Oystercatchers matures. Fantastic to have the continuity of shots from newly hatched to over 100 days!

    • Mia McPherson July 5, 2012 at 11:09 am

      Thanks so much Scott. It was delightful to watch the chicks grown and change for such a long period of time. I will never forget it.

  15. Larry Jordan July 5, 2012 at 7:05 am

    What a wonderful experience and documentation of the American Oystercatcher Mia! Amazing photography as usual but I can’t tell you how much I love the shot of the eight day old chick on the sand by the shoreline with the surf splashing up behind it. It is mind blowing!

    I’m glad to see that the areas are roped off with signage. We need more of our shorebird nesting sites protected like this. As always you have represented the wildlife photographer as a careful and caring individual with the species’ interests being obviously more important than the photograph. Thank you for being so adamant about this issue and showing everyone who sees your photographs how to get the most excellent wildlife photos without disturbing the subject.

    • Mia McPherson July 5, 2012 at 11:08 am

      Thank you Larry. As a bird photographer and nature lover I feel an obligation to mention nesting bird and chick field ethics when I do a post like this one. I’ve seen too many people stress out chicks and their parents by gettng to close to them. Jim Wilson, the head ranger at Fort De Soto County Park (and a great friend) does an excellent job at making sure that the birds of Fort De Soto are looked after and protected. I miss him, all my felllow photo friends and the birds there.

      I’m tickled that you love the eight day old image because it has been a favorite of mine too since I took it, it has such a wonderful mood to it because of the light and waves.

      Thanks again.

  16. Nicole MacP July 5, 2012 at 5:57 am

    Wow!!! Awesome post, what an amazing experience… And your pics are wonderful!

    • Mia McPherson July 5, 2012 at 11:03 am

      Thanks so much Nicole, it was definitely an amazing experience.

  17. Laurence Butler July 5, 2012 at 12:58 am

    What an outstanding chronology! Loved all the shots. It’s so rare to see a full sequence like this; it’s truly something special Mia. Well done, thanks for sharing!

    • Mia McPherson July 5, 2012 at 11:03 am

      Laurence, it was great to see your post on American Oystercatchers this morning too! Loved your title. It felt very special to me to follow this Oystercatcher family for so long. Thank you for commenting.

  18. Azstu July 4, 2012 at 10:30 pm

    Great set of images and commentary Mia.. I totally agree how cool it is to follow the birds from nest to adulthood. As always a pleasure to see your great images and I learn something usually 😉 from your comments.

    • Mia McPherson July 5, 2012 at 11:02 am

      Stu, thanks for your comment on this post (it was incomplete when you first viewed it) and the images. They are fascinating shorebirds.

Comments are closed.