On Saturday May, 18, 2013 I had one of the most profound moments of my life in wilderness adventure by photographing the reclusive Bobcat in Shenandoah National Park.
Before I share the details of this incredible occasion allow me to share my history with this incredible place and the joy it has brought to my life. I have been hiking extensively and photographing in Shenandoah National Park for over a decade now. I've camped, backpacked, and climbed this section of Appalachia and enjoyed it's mountain vistas, excellent wildlife viewing, and the seasonal changes that bring innumerable amounts of photographic study. The park is simply awesome. It is so close to Washington D.C. yet it offers true wilderness recreation that feels light years away from the political and traffic gridlock that plagues the city.
Seeing a Black Bear is always wonderful; as is hiking to a waterfall on a misty morning. Shenandoah has plenty of both. Of the over 50 species of mammals that inhabit the park, the one that had always eluded me is the Bobcat. I've seen their tracks in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Utah, and Florida. I've heard them in the mountains of Virginia. In fact those who study them report of rarely seeing them. I knew my chances of seeing one of these majestic cats in the wild were slim but it has always been a goal to, at the least, catch a glimpse. That was until I saw one staring at my car at 5 in the morning six weeks ago. It was amazing! It was wonderful! I could have turned around right then and felt fulfilled! Sure, it lasted a total of 4 seconds before it disappeared into the dark forest, but I saw my first wild Bobcat! "What a morning," I said to myself, and all before sunrise!
To see any of the wild cats in North America is a rare treat as they are all reclusive and avoid humans. The Mountain Lion, Canada Lynx, and Ocelot are rarely seen beauties who are suffering from a multitude of conservation woes which adds to the mystique of seeing them in their natural habitat. In terms of species' concern, the Bobcat's numbers are fairly stable but they are still no less evasive to the human eye.
Rewinding back to this past Saturday I had arrived in Shenandoah National Park around 5:30 in the morning. There was a heavy fog throughout the interior of the park, keeping visibility to about 10 feet in front of me. I figured wildlife opportunities would be few and and that I should take advantage of the eerie fog to create scenic photographs. It was a cool morning in the higher elevations, especially with no sunlight to burn off the fog, and I packed accordingly. Whenever I begin a hike I always take a deep breathe in reverence to be within such an amazing environment, and make sure I have my gear and safety equipment easily accessible just in case something unexpected happens. Within 5 minutes of my descent I witnessed a bobcat, a wild, beautiful, living bobcat, crossing the trail about 2 yards from where I stood! I believe my, and the Bobcat's, heart stopped for a split second when we made eye contact. The Bobcat went into the forest and I quickly switched to my long lens and attached it to my tripod. To not appear too large and threatening to the bobcat, I crawled upon the forest floor leaving plenty of space between this beautiful predator and myself. The bobcat was fixated on something ahead of it and began to move in a stalking position. I realized it was on morning hunt. For about 15 minutes I was able to keep an extremely low profile and photograph this species that had eluded me for so long. The bobcat stopped at a fallen tree for about 5 minutes with its back turned to me, eyes fixed on something in the field. This incredible moment ended abruptly when the bobcat leapt over the fallen tree and caught what was either a field mouse or chipmunk and ran off into the adjacent woods. Mother nature humbled me again with her power and beauty.
Wow! This is easily one of my favorite moments that I have captured. Ansel Adams spoke of chance favoring the prepared mind and that philosophy is clearly illustrated here. Years of hiking and photographing wildlife prepared me for this rare moment and I was fortunate enough to take advantage of it by knowing my equipment, being physically fit, and understanding my subjects behavior.
If you notice in the photograph there is heavy fog behind the bobcat, which creates a scene with soft and subdued lighting. While this is not my favorite type of light I think it adds to the photograph by emphasizing the mysterious nature of this reclusive species. Would I have preferred more dramatic lighting? Yes, of course. But this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and one has to take what Mother Nature presents. What you are viewing is a wild bobcat in its natural habitat. Beautiful, primal, and most importantly, natural.
Anyone can go to a game farm and take photographs of a bobcat placed in great light and perfect scenery. Unfortunately, most photographs of North American cats are of game farms specimens. An ignorant public and ignorant publishers are partially to blame for this. Since I began photographing wildlife I made a promise to only photograph wild animals in their natural habitat. Photographing rare and elusive species in a game farm environment presents an unrealistic view of nature to the public. One can spend years in the deserts of Utah and never catch a trace of a Mountain Lion. Yet there are plenty of stock photographs that show a Mountain Lion leaping over red rock formations, in dramatic lighting no less. One could argue of the aesthetic beauty of some of these image, which I will not debate. My concern is that it is a not true, wild moment and if one is going to practice this type of photography it should be labeled accordingly and not as "wildlife." If one is going to photograph in these fabricated scenarios it is the photographers responsibility to inform the viewer that this is a captive specimen.
Another issue with game farm photography is that the animals often live in sub par conditions. Famed wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen wrote a fantastic essay on this subject, which can be found here:
I've provided additional views of the bobcat below in order to express the differences in wild versus captive specimens. You can see that this bobcat is lean, and not heavy as their captive counterparts typically are. It is lean because it has to hunt to survive with no certainty of when it will capture its next meal. I've also included a close-up of its back and what appears to be a rather large tick feeding away at its host. Nature presents us with the hard realities of the world; predator and prey, parasite and host. The adventure of wildlife photography is lost in the world of game farm photography. You will not see a bobcat every time you head to the mountain (trust me, I know) but when you do, you will appreciate that beautiful, rare moment that you hope inspires your viewer to seek the same experience.
Wildlife photographers owe it to all those who care about wildlife to adhere to a strict code of ethics where we will disclose when our subjects are captive specimens. This is a wild bobcat: imperfect and beautiful, primitive and graceful. It is a moment that I will take with me forever and I’m glad I get to share it with you.
To the good hike,