The Best Way to Get Close to Bobcats? Act Like You're Not Even There

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All photos: Daniel Dietrich.

Wildlife photographer Daniel Dietrich recently started his own nature photography tour company in California's Bay Area. But before he could do that, he had to find his niche and become intimately knowledgeable about local wildlife.

I think the most important thing to think about when you are viewing or photographing any animal is how your actions are impacting your subject. Am I causing it to move or fly? Is it using a call associated with stress or a warning? Is it feeding, nursing, have young nearby? If a bird has chicks, perhaps it won’t leave the nest to go get food if I am too close. Am I too close to this carcass that animals won’t come in to feed?

I don’t want to put myself on a pedestal though. I have caused birds to fly. I have had bobcats leave an area because of my presence. If I didn’t want to disturb any animal ever, I couldn’t be in this profession. But I feel I make very ethical choices in the manner in which I capture my images.

This alone takes extraordinary patience, but he had one more thing to factor in: he wasn't going to use any of the controversial tricks of the trade to bring in animals and get the close-up. While many wildlife photographers lean on things like baiting or calling in animals, Dietrich has drawn a line for his practices as a nature photographer and as a tour leader and shunned these things. Instead, he spent months studying his target species, the bobcat, until he knew individual cats, their territories and even their individual daily routines. His strategy has allowed him to capture wonderfully intimate portraits not only of this species but of the other species living in the area, and importantly, the portraits come at no risk to his subjects.

We spoke with Dietrich about how he was able to learn so much about these wild felines, and what ethical wildlife viewing and photography is and isn't.

MNN: What got you interested in bobcats?

Daniel Dietrich: Shortly after moving to the San Francisco bay area in the early 1990s, I began hearing stories of bobcat sightings in places like Rancho San Antonio, The Marin Headlands and Point Reyes. On my many hikes in these areas, I found myself constantly on the lookout for them. I caught a couple very fleeting glimpses of them over the years, but never truly got a good look at one. As I became more serious about wildlife photography, I wanted to capture an image of one very badly. When I became a full-time wildlife photographer, I became obsessed with it.

What have you done to learn about the bobcats in your area?

It really boils down to patience and persistence. Of all the places I’ve looked for bobcats, I enjoyed doing so most in Point Reyes. So I focused there. So much so, I actually moved there. It is a magical place and I felt that being there gave me the best chance of success as a full time wildlife photographer.

I ultimately found success finding bobcats when I finally decided I wasn’t going to look for anything else. I asked every person I passed on every trail if they had ever seen a bobcat there. I started asking the park staff, the maintenance people, the ranchers, everyone. I even got pulled over by a park ranger once, curious why he continually saw me in one particular place day in and day out. After our pleasant exchange, I even asked him if he’d share his experiences with me.

After a few patterns emerged, I began sitting with binoculars in a few particular areas. I’d sit for hours, even an entire day, and just watch. I’d sit where I had found tracks earlier. I’d sit on fields that were covered in gopher holes, hoping they’d visit for a meal. I’d sit on hillsides with great views and just scan for them.

bobcat with prey

My persistence has really paid off. I am seeing bobcats very consistently now. I’ve learned some of their key behaviors, their territories, their patterns and can generally put myself in a good position to see one on most my trips into the park.

bobcat in field

What does it take to be able to really know the animals in your area?

Like anything in life, the more you practice, the better you will get. I love photographing wildlife. With any animals I want to photograph, I put in the time to really understand them. I read about them, I ask about them, I watch them constantly, quite often without my camera, just to understand them as best I can. I want to know what a small movement might mean. I want to know what they eat, how they strike, where they sleep. I want to know as much about the animal as I can. And my hope is that this time, energy and patience will show through in my work.

A good example of this is my work with great blue herons. Like many of us, I’d often see them simply standing in an open field. I’d see it over and over again. I finally wondered enough to sit and watch. I’d often watch them for hours, just to see what their deal was. And then it happened. I watched a great blue heron in an open field stab a gopher in the head and gulp it down right there on the spot. It was incredible.

great blue heron

I watched this many times through my binoculars. I watched how they hunted, how they moved, how they struck, and what certain body language meant. I learned that when they cocked their head sideways, they were looking for hawks in the nearby trees. That connection was made after I witnessed a hawk swoop in seconds after a gopher stabbing and nearly pull it off the great blue heron’s beak.

If you want to photograph wildlife, don’t just jump out of your car, get your shot and then move on. Get to know your subject. Spend time watching, listening, learning. Then get your camera out and get the shot of a lifetime.

barn owl

Ethical wildlife photography and viewing is your top priority. What does ethical photography mean to you?

Ethics in wildlife photography is extremely important to me. I think it is one of my differentiators as a professional. Ethical photography to me means doing my absolute best to capture a moment in nature exactly as it would happen if I wasn’t there. That to me is the true essence of wildlife photography.

I get a little down when I see some of the choices other "professionals" make. For instance, many professional photographers who focus on owls use live bait to capture their images. They purchase mice at pet stores, bring them out into the field and dangle them in front of the owls. When the cameras are all set and the lighting perfect, they will throw the mouse out into the field and snap away as the owl flies in to grab it. It is horribly wrong in so many ways. You can read more of my thoughts in my blog post on the subject.

To me, the story behind the image is more important than the actual image itself. It took me years to capture an image of an owl flying at me. But I did it with patience and persistence. I did it with high standards and ethical choices. Because of this, I was rewarded with a story I am extremely proud to tell my fans.

great grey owl

So, what counts as unethical wildlife photography?

Each individual gets to draw their own line as to what they feel is ethical and what is not. That is what this whole ethical debate is about. Many of the things I feel are unethical may not be considered so by others.

What I think is very important is that people truly understand what went into the capturing of any particular image. Ask for the story. Specifically ask the photographer if it was captured using bait. Ask if it was a wild animal or captive. Then make the decision to like it, support it, vote for it, or buy it.

There are many examples of what I personally feel is unethical behavior in wildlife photography:

  • Purchasing mice from a pet store and throwing them to owls, hawks and falcons
  • Dragging a rubber seal behind a boat to capture a shark breaching or chasing it
  • Dumping blood and fish parts into water to attract sharks
  • Luring out eels or other marine animals from their locations with bait fish
  • Releasing bait birds for captive or trained birds of prey to chase and kill
  • Placing bait piles in a specific location and waiting for animals to come in to eat it
  • Taking a picture of an animal at a game farm or zoo and not telling your audience it is such, leaving them to believe the image was obtained naturally in the wild.
  • Using a recorded call or device to lure in an animal
  • Photoshopping parts of multiple images together to create a scene that doesn’t exist in nature

This is a very short list. There are many more and far more horrific examples of how "professionals" use unethical methods to capture their images.

When you're new to watching a species, how do you know if you're being ethical with how you're viewing them?

I think the most important thing to think about when you are viewing or photographing any animal is how your actions are impacting your subject. Am I causing it to move or fly? Is it using a call associated with stress or a warning? Is it feeding, nursing, have young nearby? If a bird has chicks, perhaps it won’t leave the nest to go get food if I am too close. Am I too close to this carcass that animals won’t come in to feed?

coyote pounce

What do you do if you witness someone getting too close or disturbing wildlife?

Those situations are tough. There is a difference between what may be considered unethical and illegal. Typically parks establish minimum distances that must be maintained between you and a particular animal. If someone is well within this distance, I may ask them if they knew about the park’s rules. If someone is clearly putting an animal in danger, it may warrant alerting a park ranger.

In the case where someone may be doing something unethical, that’s a different story. In those situations, emotions run high and it isn’t typically productive to confront that person. I find it more productive to use that experience to learn from and share it in a way that might have more impact on a greater audience.

You run a photography tour in Point Reyes National Seashore. Do you coach people you take out with you on ethical practices?

I do run photography tours in the park. The company is called Point Reyes Safaris. I take very small groups of people into the park to view and photograph wildlife. I do talk about ethics in photography, particularly concerning the animals in the park. I know the animals very well, and can share with people my knowledge to ensure they capture incredible moments with the least amount of impact to the animal.

My greatest hope is that my actions more than my words will show people how they can obtain incredible images without compromising ethics. It is so satisfying and so rewarding to capture a unique moment in nature knowing you’ve done so with a story behind it. What kind of story do you tell your fans when you throw a mouse to an owl to capture an image? To me there is no story there. That is why this method is rarely disclosed. Since my blog post on the topic, I’ve received many messages from people saying they never knew this behavior existed. It motivates me to continue my work on this topic.

I am very happy with the manner in which I have chosen to capture images in the wild. I hope it will help amateur and professional photographers alike shape the way they want to be recognized in this field.

coyote howl

You run your tours in a national seashore, so protected parks are important to you. How important are parks and preserves to wildlife photography in general?

Parks and preserves typically provide a place where animals can roam freely. So they make for incredible places for wildlife photography. My wish is that animals could have this same type of ‘freedom’ everywhere, not just in a designated park.

I feel one of the most thrilling events a person can experience in life is seeing wildlife in its natural habitat. I watch people light up when they tell me about the mountain lion they saw, or they share a story of seeing a wolf in Yellowstone. They relive the moment while sharing the story as if it just happened that morning. It is thrilling. It is contagious. The more people that get to experience that type of moment with nature, the more people will be excited about protecting it. I hope my work will contribute to this excitement for many years to come.

bobcat on hill

Check out more of Dietrich's photography on his website as well as on Facebook.