Until Ryan Cassella was five years old, almost everything he knew about birds was from his favorite animated show: Wild Kratts on PBS Kids. Watching a Snowy Owl search for prey or a Peregrine Falcon diving and chasing after pigeons piqued Ryan’s fascination for the avian world. Taking notice of his son’s interest, Michael Cassella, a finance professional and photography enthusiast, realized he could show Ryan these birds “living free and in the wild” (as they say on Wild Kratts) in their home state of New Jersey.
Their adventures started out with trips to beaches and state parks, with Ryan watching shorebirds and songbirds through his binoculars and Michael photographing them. On their return, Ryan would enthusiastically narrate stories of the trip and show off the photographs to his mom. One day, he dug out his dad’s 15-year-old Sony point-and-shoot camera and decided that he’d be a photographer, too.
During their first photography trip to Allaire State Park during the summer of 2019, Ryan, then six, observed Ruby-throated Hummingbirds hover and sip nectar from flowers. “We had to wait a little until they came,” he says, and when they did, “the birds moved really fast.” While the shots were a bit blurry, he was thrilled to capture hummingbirds at all.
Fortunately, Great Horned Owl fledglings made better photography subjects for his second trip this spring. Hiding behind a shed in the woodlands of Brielle, New Jersey, the Cassellas patiently photographed two furry chicks perched on a leafless tree 60 feet away. For Ryan, it was the best picture he’d ever taken, and it even won 16 votes from friends and family in a contest Michael started on his personal Facebook page, pitting his son’s point-and-shoot against his DSLR photo. (Michael lost by 14 votes.) Ryan proudly texted the photo he took to his grandparents, who encouraged him to keep at it. “That’s where the photography love kind of took off for Ryan,” Michael says, “and he wanted do more and more.”
When an American Robin pair started nesting in their front yard tree in April this year, Ryan, who was schooling from home, decided to further sharpen his skills. He spent two weeks watching and photographing the birds for hours at a time from his bedroom’s dusty window. Every now and again, Ryan would run to his dad to show him the images and check if they were good shots. “His pictures were terrible,” Michael says, thanks to the window pane and the old gear. The next day, Michael set up his Nikon 600mm DLSR on a tripod that he placed inside the house near the front door. Ryan would open the door for a few minutes, quickly climb up a chair to access the camera, and capture the robin family. “The more and more he got into it, he’d leave the door open for longer periods of time,” Michael says. Within a day, Ryan captured a beautiful image of a robin feeding its babies that he wants to print and hang in his room.
This year the duo has continued photographing migratory shorebirds at New Jersey’s beaches. “I like spending time with my dad,” Ryan says, an opportunity enhanced by the work and school-from-home lifestyle. His photography trips have taught him two important lessons: Always hold your camera still, and practice patience, because you won’t always see what you’re looking for. Someday Ryan hopes to take a photo that’ll get featured in the Audubon Photography Awards just like his dad’s oystercatcher photo, whose photo made the Top 100 list this year.