A 3-Year Quest to Photograph a Bobcat and an Epic Camera Trap Shot
In September of 2018, I had already been dabbling with remote trail cameras for about six or seven years. I had captured trail cam images and video of just about all of the high-profile critters you’d be interested to capture in my part of the world: coyotes, foxes, bears, bobcats, and mountain lions.
On a couple different occasions, I have startled one off of a logging road while out on the mountain bike and ridden up to the spot where it had bounded off of the roadway just a few seconds after it leaped to the shelter of the woods on the downhill side of the road.
It’s hard not to be impressed by their ability to disappear as you stare into a relatively small area where you know they must be, only to find emptiness staring back. They have incredible natural camouflage and an uncanny ability to vanish into a landscape.
It was after getting another set of daylight photos on a trail camera in September of 2018 when I decided that I was going to make it a mission to get a good bobcat photo on the “real” camera. This decision was made easier by the countless amazing images of bobcats everyone but me was seemingly posting on social media on a regular basis, as the cats apparently came waltzing out of the woods to lounge around the backyard for virtually every photographer on the planet except me.
I just had to get a few moments with one of these critters. It wouldn’t be that hard if I put a little effort in.
I knew going in that a random encounter would only be beneficial if all of the pieces of the puzzle came together: if I had the camera handy, if the lighting was right, and if it didn’t dart into the woods like every other time I had ever seen one in the wild. It wasn’t likely that all three of these criteria would be met, so I had to create a scenario where I would have the upper hand.
I knew that bobcats were hunted in much of the country, so I started looking into how hunters get close to them. This is done primarily by using camouflage to conceal yourself, and game calls to attract the bobcat.
A traditional game call is a small instrument-type device that you put to your lips and blow through, creating sounds like a wounded or dying prey species, attracting a predator species to your location. They are used a lot for hunting coyotes and any other predator like a bobcat.
The difference between something like a coyote and something like a bobcat, though, is that coyotes will come blazing into the area at a gallop most of the time, within a few minutes of hearing the sound if they are anywhere in the area. Bobcats are notorious for taking a great deal longer to stalk their way in, often making a complete 360-degree circumnavigation of the whole area as they patiently creep their way towards the sound, undetected.
Hunters recommend at least a 45-minute “set” for bobcats, whereas if you haven’t seen a coyote in about 20 minutes, you’re probably not going to see one and it’s best to move on. The hardcore guys recommend 60 minutes for bobcats. There are a lot of stories out there of the hunter standing up, assuming after 45 or 50 minutes that there is no cat nearby…only to see one bounding off from as close as 30 feet away as soon as it saw them move.
Scent is a big deal for coyote hunters… the direction of the wind is very important, and if you’re upwind of a canine, it’s probably going to “make” you before it comes in too close. This is not as true for cats.
Bobcats and mountain lions are not known as scent hunters, but rather as eyeball hunters. Their vision is incredible, and any movement in the woods causes them to hunker down and vanish. For this reason, most hunters use electronic game calls for bobcats. These are basically small speakers hidden in the brush, with a small remote control that can be operated with hardly any movement. This has two advantages: You don’t have to move to use it, and it directs the cat’s focus towards the source of the noise, rather than on your exact location. You’re more likely to be overlooked this way, assuming you don’t so much as move a pinky finger for at least 45 minutes.
Bobcats are also known for their laser focus once they do zero in on prey. They are similar to the cheetah in this regard. Cheetahs have been observed running headlong into an impala that had the good fortune of simply not being the impala that they were zeroed in on. The resulting crash breaks the cat out of its trance, focus is lost, and the target prey along with the innocent bystander escape.
Because of this focus instinct, hunters often also use a small motion decoy for bobcats. A little piece of fur or feathers flipping or twisting, combined with the noise of the game call often gets bobcats “locked on.” Hunters who were after a different species tell stories of being almost unable to scare a bobcat away until it has had a chance to investigate the decoy completely.
I utilized all of these techniques. Bobcats are primarily nocturnal, being most active at dawn and dusk, and throughout the night. Sunrise and sunset are a photographer’s favorite times anyway, so dawn and dusk often found me motionless in a bush or under a tree, in 3D leafy ghillie-suit style camouflage, camera wrapped in moss and camouflaged fabric, with my game call and decoy about 30 yards away, calling into the stillness of the morning and evening.
Locations on the edge of dense woods, calling the cat out into the more open areas, are preferred. This limits their opportunity to approach from the rear. I knew it was just a matter of time before I called one in. I was highly motivated… for the first 10 months or so.
I had other successes while trying for bobcats. I called in coyotes. I called in wild turkeys. I called in a few cows one time. Hawks, deer, owls… everybody wants to know what’s dying in the woods. On one occasion during what became a three-year project, I discovered a deer carcass that was pretty obviously a mountain lion kill. I used what I had learned from hunters to successfully call in the mountain lion. It was a thrilling experience and a great success, but the bobcat remained my nemesis.
In the meantime, I had been reading more and more about remote camera trapping. Not trail cameras, but DSLR cameras rigged up to motion triggers that produce amazing close-up images of extremely shy wildlife. It all looked pretty complicated, so although I was interested, I held off on jumping into that world. I continued to call for the bobcat that I knew was hanging out around my property, hitting it hard for a few days every time I’d see him show up on my trail cameras.
I continued to strike out.
Two and a half years is a long time to fail at something, but by November of 2020 I was pondering that definition of insanity that goes something like “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” I knew if I was ever out there at the right time, I could get him. But I was never out there at the right time. His trail camera appearances were almost exclusively in the wee dark hours of the night.
That same November I discovered a deer carcass on my property. It appeared to have died of natural causes, and I think I randomly discovered it on the very first day it was there. It was next to a big log, in a shady, cold spot, and things were freezing up for the winter. I set up a trail cam, knowing that eventually a predator would discover it, and I started checking the scene and the camera every day or two.
December came and went. I started getting pictures of a fox checking out the deer. It wasn’t eating, just sniffing around. It came by two or three times a week.
About halfway through January, I was starting to figure that it would be the spring before everything thawed out enough for a bear or something to smell it. But then one day, there was a bunch of grass and brush piled up on the deer carcass, and the camera contained dozens of photos of my bobcat going to work, eating and then burying this free cache of food. That day I set up a second trail camera by the deer, and set up a photo blind about 30 yards away, in a stand of cedar trees. It was finally going to happen.
Over the next few days, our biggest snowstorm of the year hit. It changed the landscape, turning my photo blind into an igloo (perfect), and making the paths that the bobcat was using to come and go easy to find. My daily routine was to get up at about 4:30 and move as quietly as possible out to my photo blind, which was probably about 300 yards from my house. I wouldn’t use any light, making my way by a sliver of moonlight on the white snow.
I had a little camp chair inside the blind, and after the two-minute process of quietly unzipping and re-zipping the door (the door was on the back of the blind, so I had a pretty good chance of sneaking in if I was silent), I’d sit in the chair and start to try to make out shapes down there at the log, in the dark, through the little hole in the blind that would soon be clogged up with my large camera lens.
I left a tripod in the blind too, and would slowly get the camera set up, silently, not knowing if the cat was down there yet or not. My hope was to catch it in the early hours of dawn, as soon as there was enough light for decent photos. My trail cams had indicated that it had been active during that time once or twice in the days leading up to this.
Average morning temperatures during this period of time were around 15°F (-9.5°C). By about 7:45 on these days, after daylight overtook the woods, and I was certain that the cat was not around, I’d go down to the trail cameras and collect memory cards, which would normally tell me that the cat had left at about 3:00am, an hour or so before I was creeping down to the blind. During these long mornings in the photo blind, I finally made up my mind to learn how to put together a DSLR camera trap. A good full resolution, color photo of a 3:00am creature was impossible otherwise. I started researching infrared triggers and homemade weatherproof camera housings.
One morning it was dumping snow the whole time I was in the blind. When I went down to the log, I found no fresh tracks leaving the scene, indicating that the cat hadn’t come or gone at least for a few hours. On the backside of the log, where I had a camera set up, and where the cat spent a good deal of time grooming after eating sessions, there was a hole in the snow, like a natural snow cave against the back of the log, made by brush and branches leaning against the log under almost a foot of new snow.
I stood there in silence, staring at that hole and realizing that there was a very good chance that I was about 4 feet away from what was now a multi-year obsession. It might be in there. It was a really interesting thing to ponder. There were a few potential outcomes. I could smash that cave and hope that the cat bolted up a tree, and maybe get my photos. I could smash that cave and get my face torn off. I could smash that cave and see a brown blur disappear into the woods, and never see it again. Or I could just leave it in there.
Maybe it wasn’t there at all. Maybe it hadn’t been there all night. I stood there for a long time. I retreated back to some trees not far away and waited for a while longer. Nothing. I had already collected the memory cards at this point, so eventually I went back to the house and popped the one from that camera into the computer. The last video on it was from about 3:00am, in heavy snow. It showed the rear end of my bobcat disappearing into the snow cave.
He was in there the whole time, quietly winning his chess game with me.
I never got my photo of the bobcat. I collected hours of trail cam video. Really cool stuff, showing the intimate life of a bobcat just being a bobcat. Eating, cleaning up, nodding off, stretching, grooming, eating some more. I got all the bobcat footage most people would ever want. But I never got my photo.
About a week after the deer meat was about fully picked clean, the first of my camera trap parts started arriving at the house. Specific discontinued flash units, cherished for their incredibly long standby time and only available on eBay. An infrared trigger from the UK. Flash triggers, flash receivers. A DSLR camera body. Waterproof cases, epoxy resin, and fiberglass. Rechargeable batteries. Lots and lots of rechargeable batteries.
I started the long process of trial and error with flash settings, exposure settings, trigger placement, flash placement, depth of field. My first success with the camera trap was the fox that had been stopping by the deer carcass before the bobcat found it. The carcass was nothing more than a backbone and skull at this point, but he kept stopping by, and I got a great shot of him on the log.
Fast-forward six months. August 2021. Having finally gotten a decent handle on how to set up and tweak settings on the camera trap, I had continued to have “my” bobcat in the back of my mind. I set it up, after several months of leaving the area alone, on the very same log where I had failed for several weeks to see my bobcat with my own eyes.
Knowing that foxes and the other critters use the log like a natural bridge over the grassy, brushy area below, I set the camera up looking straight down the log, hoping for a shot of one of those critters creeping straight towards the camera. I joked on social media that I was counting on foxes, but what would be really cool was a shot of my big ol’ bobcat creeping straight towards the camera.
On September 6, 2021, 3 years after my initial declaration that a good bobcat photo was my goal, my bobcat crept down the very same log where he had once spent the night in a snow cave. Just above the area where he had found a deer carcass that got him through the winter, he stepped in front of my infrared trigger and stared into the lens of my camera. A very, very long list of variables, only a few of which I had any control over, all lined up in that moment, and I wound up with this image.
A three-year pursuit of a worthy opponent. The trail camera nearby showed him continuing to the end of the log right in front of the camera (out of trigger range) and spending about 5 minutes grooming, stretching, and knocking over one of my flash units. Then he walked back down the log, triggered the camera again on his way out, and disappeared into the woods.
It was like he finally decided that it was time to give me my photo.
About the author: Randy Robbins is a wildlife photographer based in Susanville, California. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Robbins’ work includes wildlife, landscapes, night skies, and general nature and outdoor photography. Photographic achievements include winning the 2019 California Wildlife Photo of the Year Contest, the GoreTex North America ‘Fear No Weather’ contest, the 2019 California Trout Photo of the Year contest, and ‘People’s Choice’ in the 2020 California Trout Photo of the Year Contest. His work has been published regularly in the annual Lassen County Visitor’s Guide and has been featured in Outdoor California magazine, The San Fransisco Chronicle, and other local Northern California publications. You can find more of his work on his website and Instagram.