How a Young Wildlife Photographer Gets the Goods

How a Young Wildlife Photographer Gets the Goods

2. Surprise of the river otter

River otter. (Photo by Vishal Subramanyan)

The return of river otters to the Bay Area is spectacular. In the mid-1900s, they nearly disappeared due to fur trapping and polluted waterways. A trapping ban and the Clean Water Act of 1972 paved the way for a potential comeback.

But it seems to have taken a few decades. In the early 2000s, people started seeing them more, especially around Marin County. Now, river otters can be seen in Bay Area watersheds.

In the summer of 2020, I was hiking along a creek in the East Bay when I had a surprise encounter with an otter and her cub. They were swimming in the shallow stream, trying to catch crayfish. I sat quietly and the otters finally emerged from the water. As mom groomed herself on a sandy bank, the curious pup perched on top of a small rock and looked at me quizzically, which allowed me to take the first photo.

The second photo is unusual, it is quite rare to see otters in a tree. One fall evening, I found the same mother and her pup swimming in a deep creek pool. Suddenly, the pup came out of the water and climbed on an arched sycamore branch above the stream. Soon the mother joined him and pushed him off the tree into the water, playing a game. They kept him for a while that evening, it was a joy to see.

River otter, about to be pushed back. (Photo by Vishal Subramanyan)

The last photo, however, is the most special. For a long time I really wanted a picture of the otters together. When I found the family over two months later, they were catching crayfish in the stream. I quietly sat on the edge and waited for them to come out of the water. They finally made their way over a log just 20 feet from me. I was able to watch and photograph them as they groomed, relaxed and wrestled on that log for the next 15 minutes.

Family photo. (Photo by Vishal Subramanyan)

Due to their newfound abundance in the Bay Area, you may be lucky enough to spot a River Otter yourself! If you walk near streams or rivers, be sure to keep a close eye out for these silky swimmers. Often you will notice their ripples before you spot the otters themselves. Seeing them is a real pleasure, and I hope many of you will experience it!


3. The Reward of a Hike in the Rain

On a damp winter evening, after a long day of classes at UC Berkeley, I headed out with my camera for the hills of East Bay. My target was bobcats, which often hunt gophers right after the rains. Rain often damages gopher burrows, and gophers spend time in the open immediately afterwards, repairing their burrows. The things that like to eat gophers seem to know it.

I thought the rain was over. But as soon as I started walking, it started again, and hard – my gear barely survived the rain. Finally, about half an hour before the park gates closed, the rain stopped. Soaked and miserable, I was about to return to my car when I saw this great horned owl hunting from a stump a few feet above the ground. They normally wait until after sunset to hunt; this owl had come out earlier, thanks to the dark conditions and the rain.

The dark and humid conditions made photography very difficult, but I managed to get a few shots as the owl stared in my direction with its bright yellow eyes. Then I had to run so the parking lot doors wouldn’t close on me! It was well worth getting such a detailed, close-up shot of this remarkable bird.


4. A stroke of luck

One summer morning in 2021, I was watching a hunting great horned owl. Perched on an oak branch, it was fixed on something in the field behind me. I took a quick look and was shocked to see this long tailed weasel.

The rarely seen long-tailed weasel, carrying lunch. (Photo by Vishal Subramanyan)

Long-tailed weasels are shy, quick and mostly nocturnal. Hardly anyone ever sees them in the East Bay. Remarkably, I was able to watch him for the next two hours as he climbed into sycamore cavities, ran through trails, and even grabbed a rodent and hid it in a tree.

I spend nearly ten hours a week in the field, and have done so for 5 years, and this remains the only weasel I have seen in the East Bay. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a once-in-a-lifetime encounter.

Glancing. (Photo by Vishal Subramanyan)

People often think that elusive animals like weasels can only be found off the beaten path, but I was right next to a popular hiking trail.

These animals are all around us all the time; we just have to be careful. I always try to read the landscape and the behavior of other animals for clues as to where wildlife might be. In this case, the great horned owl showed me the weasel. In many other cases, alarm calls from ground squirrels have helped me find bobcats, foxes, and coyotes. And when I become familiar enough with hiking in an area, I can notice subtle changes in the landscape that could indicate the presence of wildlife. By using these techniques, you can spot animals that the vast majority of hikers would miss.

In this encounter like many others, other hikers often see me and ask me what I am looking at. I was able to share this particular encounter with quite a few hikers. Sharing encounters like these is what makes wildlife photography so rewarding for me. I can give people a glimpse of wildlife that they rarely or never see themselves.

Long-tailed weasel perches. (Photo by Vishal Subramanyan)

5. The audacity of youth

I see a lot of coyotes in my many hours in the field, but almost never have the opportunity to take pictures of them. They are just very nervous around people. Usually they are away and running.

In the spring of 2019, my luck changed when a friend found a den of five adorable coyotes in green shrubbery, just 30 feet from a popular hiking trail. We were able to get some great looks as they played and frolicked noisily outside their den. Surprisingly, unlike the adults, these puppies didn’t seem bothered by our presence. In fact, they were very curious, sometimes walking within 10 feet of us to see us. My heart raced with excitement as they approached, but we made sure to stay completely still and quiet until their curiosity was satisfied and they were gone.

Puppies relax. (Photos by Vishal Subramanyan)

We came back the following week and the pups had already left that den, probably for one farther from the trail. They move regularly at this time of year, so we weren’t surprised.

Fighting puppies. (Photo by Vishal Subramanyan)

The first three photos are from this special encounter with the puppies. The last photo, however, is of an adult, just so you can see how his face and body differ from the puppies. This photo from 2021 is one of the few times I was able to photograph an adult coyote in the East Bay. He seemed more tolerant than most other adult coyotes, so when I saw him walking on the trail, I backed off the trail a bit and lay down on the ground to lower my profile. He then walked right in front of me, allowing me to take this photo. I was thrilled to see it so close and to finally have pictures of an adult coyote.

Adult coyote. (Photo by Vishal Subramanyan)

Coyotes often get a bad rap in the media, but hopefully these photos will show that they are intelligent, beautiful animals that play an important role in the ecosystem.


6. Night Prowlers

These final images are from my recent experiences with camera trapping.

A DSLR trail camera is just a DSLR camera left in the field (sip!), protected by a waterproof box. A motion sensor triggers the camera and an on-camera transmitter triggers two off-camera flashes. In the Bay Area, I worked with this method at UC Berkeley’s Blue Oak Ranch Preserve with special permission – it’s a biological field station for scientific research and education.

Bobcat, in a flash. (Photo by Vishal Subramanyan)

I started camera trapping originally to capture images of cougars. But I quickly became addicted to the technique when I saw how it allowed me to capture more elusive animals and incorporate more habitat into the images (in daytime images I normally use a very long lens to avoid spooking my subjects – and this long lens has a super narrow depth of field, which blurs the background). I also like the technical challenge. A DSLR camera trap has many working parts. Learning each in turn forced me to improve my mastery of composition and light.

This style of photography has also helped me deepen my understanding of animal movements. To find the right place, I have to think about it from the animal’s point of view. If I were a cougar, where would I want to be? I think about how a location’s topography, prevailing wind direction, edge habitats, prey sources, and water sources can all play a role in how wildlife move through the landscape .

Curious coyote. (Photo by Vishal Subramanyan)

My nighttime camera traps captured bobcats and coyotes in the San Jose Hills as pictured above. I have also photographed cougars with this technique in other parts of the state. There are few things as exciting as opening a camera trap and seeing what it captured while I was away.

This is, I hope, the kind of work I will do for a long time as a conservation photojournalist. I believe visual storytelling has the power to create meaningful change for wildlife, sharing their struggles and inspiring people to help protect them.

Follow Vishal Subramanyan on Twitter @vishalfoto, Instagram @vishalsubramanyan and Facebook on Vishal Subramanyan Photography.


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