People that see my frequent images of bobcats sometimes say to me, "The bobcats must really know you to be able to get these shots." While I understand why they might think that, it isn't true. There is no bobcat in the park that "knows" me. I never want an animal to get used to my presence. Any time we allow animals to become habituated to our presence, we put them at risk. The more habituated they become, the higher that risk.
It doesn't take much for an animal to become habituated. I once had a raven fly 2 feet from my car window for 2 miles as I drove. It saw something I was eating and wanted some. I stopped to take a photo and it landed right next to my car. I got back in, started driving again, and it followed me again for another mile. Do you think this guy was ever fed by humans?
Have you ever seen those adorable photos of red foxes nosing a photographer's lens? A cute photo opportunity, indeed. But there is nothing cute about a habituated fox. It is very likely this fox has been fed by humans and will end up in big trouble the next time it begs for food from the wrong person.
We've all probably heard the saying 'a fed bear is a dead bear'. Many bears have been put down because humans have fed them so much that they completely lost their fear of people. This lack of fear then puts humans at risk. And it's the bear that ends up paying the consequences of our actions with its own life.
I have also heard of owls becoming habituated to people who use bait to photograph them. They actually recognize the car they drive. When they see the car, they fly to the nearest perch and wait for their free meal. Many habituated owls have been struck by vehicles due to this unfortunate habituation.
Concerning the bobcats I photograph, it is very rare that you simply roll up on a bobcat on the side of the road. While it happens occasionally, you can pretty much guarantee it will be off an running the second it sees you. Sometimes you see them a hundred yards away. Others you find even further away using binoculars. But in most situations, once a bobcat sees you, your next step towards it, its gone. There are of course exceptions to the rule. Some cats who live in high traffic areas can be more comfortable with people. But in general, the vast majority are very skittish.
Today's outing is a great example of how I photograph a bobcat. I was parked, scanning a hillside. After an hour of scanning I found one about 200 yards away. I watched it for several minutes to see what its intentions were. It started hunting. I watched it from the car until it crouched and focused on a target. I put a very large tree between me and the bobcat and quickly scooted up to it. Slowly peering from behind it I saw that I was directly behind the bobcat. It was uphill from me on a small plateau. I dropped to my belly and army crawled up to the next little ridge. I peered over...still behind it, still hadn't seen me.
I slipped my camera in front of my face and rested it on the little ridge. It was likely 10 minutes before I hit the shutter button for the first time. As it crawled toward its prey I finally shot. It was focused and didn't even look. It did it again. And again. 3 misses and it decided to move on, up and over the hill. I circled the hill and hid myself at a place I thought it may come out. It did. I got to watch it hunt and prowl for another 15 minutes.
The entire 30 minutes I was able to watch it, it never once saw me.
While this all went the way I wanted it to, it doesn't always happen like this. More often than not when the shutter is clicked, the bobcat will find me. If I am on my belly, and keep my face behind the camera, they will often just carry on. If I am standing, they typically hit the road quickly. That is why I like to shoot lying down when photographing bobcats. It gives me the best chance to have the longest shooting time with them. And I feel it has the least amount of impact on them.
So find the subject you love. Spend as much time with it as you can. Get to know its habits, get to know its movements, get to know the signals it puts out before it does something. But don't let it get to know you.
The below image of me was taken by fellow photographer and friend Carlos Porrata. It is of me capturing the image below that of a bobcat hunting in the brush in Point Reyes National Seashore. This bobcat never saw me during the time I was able to photograph him.