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  • Writer's pictureAlyce Bender

Black Oystercatchers: A Summer Project

Summers have typically been my slow season for photography as it is, but this year I had plans to explore parts of Canada for wildlife viewing in hopes of putting together a tour offering in future years. With restrictions being what they are, I had to cancel those plans.

As our local restrictions finally lifted slightly to allow for car travel for recreation, the Monterey Bay shoreline opened to me again!

Upon visiting my usual sea otter and seal location I observed that, in the absence of humans, the harbor seal colonies moved closer to the trails. Especially right now when pups are putting on weight, I do not want to cause a disturbance with these wonderful marine mammals. So I have limited my visits to these areas, and thus my ever growing collection of sea otter images. Can you have too many images of a particular animal? I console myself that, as I am not able to get on the water for new perspectives, I'm not missing too much by making less frequent visits.

This change forced me to explore new areas for new subjects. In doing this, I headed towards the rocky shores of the Pacific Grove and Pebble Beach area. In the heart of the Monterey Peninsula, this area is a magnet for both locals and tourists alike (one reason I have stayed away until recently). There is a great walking trail that provides picturesque views for miles, so I thought, worst case scenario, I get my daily exercise with decent views.

During my outings, I don't listen to music or have anything else going on. I go out and listen to the nature around me. This habit has helped me identify many photo opportunities before I ever see them by using my hearing. While walking this area several weeks ago, I heard the various calls of the gulls, the sweet summer songs of the sparrows that hide in the seaside plantings, and then I heard an excited trilling series of high-pitch pipping.

Growing up in Florida and the coastal ecosystems over there, I knew that call. I just had not realized that oystercatchers were on the Pacific coast too! When I did spot the birds, they were different than I remembered them looking back in Florida and in the Faroe Islands (another location I had spotted them previously). These birds, here in Monterey, were dark except for their quintessential red-orange bill and yellow eyes with red "eyeliner." The oystercatchers I was use to seeing had dark top lines but white bellies.

So of course, I started taking pictures while watching the pair I had stumbled across. It became obvious that they are a mated pair and are territorial as another pair overflew the area, eliciting more pipping as they took off together.

When I returned home, I started doing some research (something I commonly do after encountering new species in the field so I can understand the subject better during future sightings). Come to find out that the Black Oystercatcher (Haematopus bachmani) is one of the rarer shorebirds in North America! With a global population estimated at only about 12,000, half of these in Alaska alone, their range stretches from the Aleutian Islands in western Alaska to Baja California, Mexico.

Due to their "place" if you will, in the ecosystem, the black oystercatcher is considered a keystone species as it plays the role as a sensitive health indicator to intertidal rocky shore communities. Many factors can impact this bird, from shoreline development and human recreation to shoreline contamination (such as oil spills) and climate change (rising sea levels and warming temperatures endanger both their nesting areas and their young).

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers this a species of special conservation importance because of its sensitivity as a keystone species. Many of the Pacific Audubon chapters have participated in data collection and field monitoring to help understand the black oystercatcher population in various areas in order to offer more precise guidance for conservation efforts.

Side note: Black oystercatchers are neither all black nor do they eat oysters! Their feathers are mostly brown and their diet consists of limpets, crabs, mussels, and other marine invertebrates, but rarely, if ever, actual oysters.

Since finding this pair, I have returned many more times, as the weather and tide allow, to monitor and photograph them. The following is a small collection of images from these field sessions.

Photo Tip: When working with dark subjects in open areas, I like to photograph on overcast days. Not only does this help control the highlights and glare in the image, but, in doing so, limits the competing visual distractions in the frame, since the eye tends to go to light colored spots first. The more moody images allows the viewer's eye to go straight to that bright bill and eye.

On my last trip out, I was very excited to find them nesting with at least one egg visible! This is highly encouraging and I hope that I am able to witness a successful fledging by summer's end.

Photo tip: As with any wildlife photography, ethically capturing the images is of the utmost importance, especially when dealing with species of special concern. A long lens is a MUST in these situations. All of the images in this article have been captures with the Tamron 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2 lens. It is my go-to for wildlife hands down. On my Nikon D500, a crop sensor, that gives me a relative image equal to 900mm without an extender. But even with that, the image below is heavily cropped in post as I do not ever want to stress these birds. No image is worth potentially endangering the subject. #NatureFirst

I will continue to photograph this pair and update my social media with images if/when chicks appear. This article will also be updated after the project with more information and more images, so be sure to check back in September to find out how the story (or the 2020 breeding season for this pair) ends.

Until next time, cheers!

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