Getting photo of piebald beaver was challenging
This story starts with my dogs. I love them and they force me to take them for walks at least a couple times a day. As a photographer, being out with the dogs is not ideal while holding my camera because they’re really good at scaring any wildlife around me.
The day I found the piebald beaver at Putah Creek, I wasn’t on an excursion to a remote place in the search of some exotic animal. I was just looking around, hanging out with my little four legged ones, when they stopped. They looked confused but interested in what was going on down in the creek. Technically, my little basset hound mix was the first one to find this oddball beaver.
I live in Winters, a small town in northern California, with less than 8,000 residents. With a large lake and a creek near Winters, agricultural areas and a small human population, it’s perfect for wildlife to appear in this area. While living here in Winters, I have expanded my wildlife list. From black bears to cougars, this place is truly amazing. However, even knowing about all the amazing creatures living around here, I wasn’t prepared for what I found that afternoon along Putah Creek.
We used a walk path to go down the creek and while my little basset mix was getting her feet wet, I saw something moving in the water close to the ravine. My first thought was that someone’s pet escaped. At first glance it looked like some sort of rodent, maybe a guinea pig… but then I quickly realized that I was in the presence of something truly amazing: a piebald beaver!
I could not believe my eyes, I couldn’t move… my eyes were frozen focused on this majestic animal. I ended up spending so much time there that my dogs finally got bored enough and started barking to get my attention — something that did not please the beaver.
This creature is part of a family of four: two adults and two kits (baby beavers). I had seen the kits around this area before and as is any baby of any species, they are super cute, but they couldn’t compare to this piebald. There is a ravine that protects them, which is the area where they spend most of their time — far away from the trail and away from dogs.
My photographer’s brain started running right away after this first encounter. All I could think about was how to get close enough not to disturb them, I was not only concerned about respecting nature, but as any animal with younglings, they could be extremely dangerous if they felt threatened, and beavers bite — just think what they can do to the hard bark of a tree!
A wildlife photographer can get a lucky shot here and there, but the best shots are those that you prepare for. It took a lot of planning and strategic thinking to capture this image.
This location presents many challenges for a photographer. There is little light around the time the beavers are out, and the shade of the ravine where the beavers spend most of their time provided extra shade that made me wonder if it was even possible to take a photo with the gear I have to capture the image I wanted.
After several days of trying many locations, I finally figured out that the only place I could get close enough to take a photo was to rappel down the ravine and wait there while wearing full camouflage until the beavers come out.
Many things went through my mind. Even if I had this camouflage that made me look like a plant, any sudden move would make the beavers move away from where I was. Also, the whole rappel down was not something I was feeling fully comfortable with — any wrong move and me and my gear would end up in the water.
Well… I did end up in the water, and this is how it went down:
As never happens, this plan was perfect. I went down without much trouble, set myself in a comfortable position and stayed still, with little movement for about two hours. Then the beavers finally came out, first a big specimen that makes me wonder if it’s the male. Then I saw one of the kits and in the far back… the piebald.
After an hour, the piebald came closer to me. It was nearing sunset and I was worried about how little light I had left. (For any photographers reading this, here’s the metadata: a focal length of 560mm with a 1/320 sec shutter speed at F8.) There was no image stabilization and no tripod, and little light made this image extremely challenging.
The photo was taken from quite far away, on the other side of this wider stretch of the creek and with the little light, I knew that I had to get as close as possible so the image would be printable.
And then… something amazing happened.
The piebald turned, went straight at me and ended up really close. We were separated by a large bush and I could see the waves of water produced by it.
All I had to do was to jump into the water, take the shot and then get out. Without thinking twice, that’s exactly what I did, and it turned out to be one of the most amazing moments of my life as a wildlife photographer.
After capturing this image, the large beaver that had swam close to me as soon as I jumped into the water slapped his tail against the water, creating a huge splash that not only covered my gear in water but also made me extremely nervous, so I got out of the water right away. That’s when I noticed that this adventure didn’t turn out without casualties.
“My phone… My phone!” I thought, right after I got out. It was still in my pocket and of course — it no longer worked.
I try not to disturb wildlife when doing photography and I felt bad about my intrusion into the beavers’ world, so I left and choose not to get this close again.