People, Profiles

How a pair of Bay Area bobcats fueled one student's passion for wildlife photography

Vishal Subramanyan spent much of his teen years documenting the lives of two bobcats named Notch and Blondie. Now, he hopes to use his skills as a naturalist and photographer to advance conservation work across the globe.

By Kara Manke

A portrait of Vishal Subramanyan holding a large camera.

Vishal Subramanyan is a celebrated wildlife photographer and a fourth-year undergraduate studying forestry and ecosystems management at UC Berkeley.

Mathew Burciaga/UC Berkeley

This I’m a Berkeleyan was written as a first-person narrative from an interview with fourth-year student Vishal Subramanyan.

I always tell people I'm a naturalist first and a photographer second. If I didn't have a camera, I would still be going out and observing wildlife.

I've lived in the Bay Area my whole life. Growing up, both my parents were fond of nature in different ways. My mom really loved animals, and my dad was really into camping and hiking. But I also had my own passion for wildlife. My favorite thing to do in childhood was to watch David Attenborough documentaries, and I was particularly obsessed with bears. When I saw congregations of brown bears together fishing salmon in Alaska, I thought, "Wow, that's something I want to see!"

When I was 13, my dad and I had the opportunity to visit Katmai National Park in Alaska, and we went to Brooks Falls to see the bears fishing salmon. I was using this little Casio pocket camera to photograph the bears, but it wasn’t getting me what I wanted. And then I just said, "Hey, dad, can I borrow your camera?" And he didn't really get it back.

A brown bear standing on the edge of a small waterfall leans down to catch a jumping salmon in its mouth.
One of Subramanyan’s earliest photos, taken in the summer of 2015, shows a brown bear on the verge of snagging a leaping salmon at Brooks Falls in Alaska.
Vishal Subramanyan

When I got back from the Alaska trip, I thought I'd have to wait for some other trip to continue my photography. But I soon realized there was so much great wildlife here in the Bay Area, and that this was where I could really specialize and tell stories about animals.

One of the first things I did was start photographing foxes — gray foxes and red foxes — in Coyote Hills park, and I also had a phase where I got into owls.

A bobcat carrying a dead squirrel in its mouth
Notch the bobcat, named for the notch on her ear, carrying a squirrel to her kittens.
Vishal Subramanyan

Mid-2017 is when I first got into bobcats. I was out photographing owls in Sycamore Grove Park in Livermore, and a hiker said, "Oh, there's a bobcat a down that way, it actually just killed a snake." I spotted the bobcat along the row of a vineyard and got a photo where she was just a little speck in the frame. That was in April, and she was pregnant in that picture. So I returned in August, thinking that maybe she would have kittens around. I saw her cross the trail with a squirrel, and then, from a distance, I watched where she took that squirrel, and three little kittens came bounding out of a tree.

I named that first cat Notch because of a notch on her ear. She had kittens in the park every year, and over time, she grew to trust me. I ended up watching her over the course of four years until she disappeared. And that same year that I found Notch, I found Notch's daughter, Blondie, who was also raising her kittens in the park.

After that, bobcats became an obsession of mine through high school and the early part of college. I would go every day after school, and I missed prom so I could go look for cats. I loved following these bobcat families, observing behaviors that I'd never seen before — and some that nobody had ever seen before. The bobcats felt almost human-like to me, in the sense that they all had their own individual personalities. I spent so much time with Notch that I truly felt like she was a friend.

A bobcat, flanked by two kittens, sits in the opening of a decayed concrete building.
Blondie the bobcat with two of her kittens. "Many of the times I found a bobcat, it was due to some signs nature was giving me, whether it was tracks on the ground or the alarm calls of ground and tree squirrels," Subramanyan said.
Vishal Subramanyan

At the time, I felt a disconnect between my academic career and my photography. High school was just something I had do — and when I got it done, I would go to my bobcats. When it came time to decide which college I was going to go to, it was a toss-up between UC Berkeley and UCLA. And the reason I chose UC Berkeley is because I was heavily invested in the bobcats, and I knew if I went to UCLA, I wouldn’t be able to photograph them — and I wouldn’t be able to photograph anything because I wouldn't have access to a vehicle. So I always say my college decision was primarily based on bobcats.

A great horned owl stands on a tree stump and gazes into the camera.
Subramanyan has photographed a variety of Bay Area wildlife, including great horned owls.
Vishal Subramanyan

My first year and a half at Berkeley was just like high school: I was doing my academics, getting the work done and then doing my photography. I started college in fall 2020, during the pandemic, so everything was online. On Sept. 30, 2020, I missed my class so I could go look for bobcats, and one of the photos I took of Blondie was later recognized by the London Natural History Museum Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards.

But a major shift happened for me when we started coming back on campus in fall 2021 and spring 2022. As I started connecting with all the amazing wildlife researchers at Berkeley, both in the environmental science department and in the biology department, I learned that there are so many people doing awesome research that I can help communicate through my photography. It helped me realize that I would like to pursue a career in environmental and wildlife storytelling, where I can take all this research and conservation that's being done by academics or nonprofits and turn it into a presentable visual format that the public can understand and engage with. Realizing this helped me finally build a bridge between those two separate worlds.

A mountain lion stands in a clearing among scraggly trees as the sun rises behind him.
A juvenile mountain lion photographed by a camera trap at UC’s Hastings Natural History Reservation. "I'd been trying to photograph a mountain lion for six months without any success, and then one morning a mom and a kitten actually walked by the trap," Subramanyan said. "The mom triggered the camera, but didn't look at it, and then the kitten came down a minute later, stopped, and looked right at the camera just as the sun was rising."
Vishal Subramanyan

I think my skills as a naturalist immensely grew when I started my journey into camera trapping, which was something I picked up in early 2022. I initially started trying to photograph mountain lions, and now I am also working with Alan Shabel in the Department of Integrative Biology to photograph mountain beavers at Point Reyes.

When I started camera trapping, I knew nothing about how or where mountain lions moved, so I would just put my camera in a random field hoping to get something — and it never worked. So I started learning that mountain lions like to move through topographic pinch points, like canyons and ridge tops, and I also learned that they are known to leave scrapes on the ground where they mark their territory.

A person checks a camera that is mounted in a dense, leafy area.
Subramanyan checks a camera trap.
Courtesy of Vishal Subramanyan

And then, as I started working for the Department of Integrative Biology, I learned how to identify mountain beaver holes and which holes are fresh, based on how loose the soil is on the outside or the presence of fresh clippings outside the burrow.

I think that what photography really can do, more than anything, is draw people in. Photos can often capture the beauty in nature in a way that words might not be able to, and I think photography paired with interesting writing can really communicate messages in an effective way.

My goal right now is to start expanding more into videography and filmmaking, with the eventual goal of being able to produce wildlife documentaries. In the future, I’d love to film and photograph tigers in Siberia and their interactions with brown bears, because I think it's fascinating that the tigers actually hunt brown bears. I’d also love to do more photography in India. I have a lot of family there, and when I visited last winter — for the first time in seven years — I was excited to photograph a black leopard.

But for now, I’m happy to focus on local stories, where I feel I can really have an impact.

A black panther creeps through the forest at night.
A melanistic leopard — a type of black panther — photographed in the Western Ghats of India. "I'd love to tell stories about the Western Ghats, which have a really unique natural history," Subramanyan said.
Vishal Subramanyan

Subramanyan’s work photographing a rare badger at Point Reyes National Seashore was featured in National Geographic this week. His photos have also appeared in Bay Nature, the East Bay Times and the fall 2023 issue of Breakthroughs magazine, a publication of the UC Berkeley Rausser College of Natural Resources.