Catcher in the Rye

This image of a variable oystercatcher in New Zealand has been recognized most recently among the top 100 bird photographs in the 2024 Audubon Photo Awards. It will be the debut of my "stories behind the shots" series. 

I call this image "Catcher in the Rye" because it is a variable oystercatcher walking through a field of flowering grass. Bunnytail grass and not rye, granted, but I didn't know that at the time and this was the caption that literally popped into my head before I had even taken the picture. That happens to me a lot, by the way, thinking of a caption or message when visualizing an image in the moment. It is usually a good sign because it means there is likely a story to tell or that the image will immediately invoke some kind of response in viewers. And this is really what I am trying to achieve with my photography, connecting viewers with my subjects on an emotional level so they care, or care more, about our natural world. 

But back to the oystercatcher. This image was taken in 2022, during a month-long trip throughout New Zealand, a dream come true. New Zealand had just opened its doors to tourists again, after having gone through one of the strictest Covid-19 restrictions to international travel of any country. 

During a spring morning at the Tawharanui Regional Reserve on the North Island, I photographed a family of variable oystercatchers on the beach as they were leading their freshly hatched chicks across the sand. One parent would fly off in search of food while the other one stayed with the chicks. Where it went I didn't know, but it always came back with what looked like earthworms. I didn't give it a second thought. After a productive morning with oystercatchers and many other birds in the reserve, I packed up my gear and walked back to the parking lot. Out of the corner of my eye I suddenly spotted something in a field next to me. Then it was gone. But no, there it was, a black head and unmistakable red beak: an oystercatcher! This was the last place I would have expected one to show up, in the middle of a field of flowering grass, but it did explain the earthworms, I thought to myself. 

Just like one does when facing a sudden encounter with wildlife after having packed up for the day, I frantically and chaotically tried to get my camera out of my backpack while at the same time making as little movements as possible so as not to scare the bird. Talk about the impossible. I had with me my trusty Canon R5 and the excellent RF100-500 zoom lens (I will talk more about my gear choices and gear advise in my newsletter), which was perfectly suited for this scene because it gave me several framing options without having to move.

When I did manage to get ready to shoot, the oystercatcher had moved closer to the edge of the field but was still poking around the soil for worms, occupied with its task. I got low on the ground to compose an image that would include the flowering grass all around the bird and highlight the contrast of colors between the bird and its environment. After a few seconds, and a few frames later, the encounter was over and the bird flew off to feed its chicks. It never return to this spot for as long as I waited. But I had the image I wanted and instinctively knew it was something special. 

To me, this image speaks to the simple beauty one can find in unexpected places, and the tranquility and peace that can transcend from something as simple as a bird in a field of grass. Part portrait and part habitat shot, the scene also combines two common approaches to bird photography (portraits and small in frame habitat shots) without committing to either one fully. Some may see that as a weakness, perhaps, but in this case, and for me, it brings together a harmony that is almost surprising, as surprising perhaps as the encounter itself. 

And that's where I have an important piece of advice to deliver, which I try to live by ever since. Never, ever, think you are done photographing until you are "safely" back in an enclosed space where your camera can truly find a resting place. The most unique and special moments tend to happen when we least expect them and therefore are least prepared. I can't tell you how many once-in-a-lifetime moments I missed capturing on camera because I thought I was "done". So, always expect the unexpected! 

I will be sharing more details about this location and tips for photographing birds in New Zealand in an upcoming newsletter, so please be sure to sign up below if you are interested in that content. 

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