As a little piece of nature within or on the outskirts of otherwise developed areas, urban parks are oases for wildlife. Even if relatively small, a park or nature preserve can be the perfect place to observe animals just doing their thing. Not only are city parks easy to get to, but wildlife in parks can actually be easier to photograph since most species are accustomed to people and don't scare as easily. That's why they're an ideal place for budding wildlife photographers to get out and practice.

City parks also offer an incredible diversity of wildlife once you start looking for it. For example, Golden Gate Park is just minutes away from where I live in the heart of San Francisco, yet here I can find coyotes, great horned owls, raccoons, a wide variety of water bird species from mallards to grebes, and even rare migratory birds. The list of fascinating insects and other critters just goes on and on. I could spend days there and still not see every species that calls it home.

So if you're a city dweller who is interested in wildlife photography, grab your camera and take advantage of your local parks and preserves system.

raccoons near pond

Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch -- A family of raccoons fishing at the edge of a pond. Taken in Golden Gate Park, with a DSLR and 200mm lens

Equipment:

  • Point-n-shoot camera: If you're a beginner, there's nothing wrong with using a point-n-shoot camera. Capitalizing on the zoom capabilities and macro settings on an easy-to-use camera is a great, frustration-free way to learn the basics of photography and enjoy time outside among wildlife.
  • DSLR camera with a zoom lens: If you're an ambitious beginner, you might want to try out a DSLR. Entry-level DSLRs can be relatively inexpensive, and give you a greater selection of lenses to use depending on the type of wildlife photography you want to do. If you're interested in wildlife you can't get as close to, like songbirds or raptors, then you might want to try out something around a 70-200mm or 70-300mm, or if you can swing a pricier lens, a 100-400mm. You can also rent lenses from companies like LensRentals and BorrowLenses until you find just the right lens for you. Your "kit lens", usually with a range of 18-55 or 18-200, gives you the opportunity to switch from wide-angle to telephoto and capture interactions between people and wildlife or wildlife within their urban setting.
  • Wide-angle or macro lenses: While we often think about getting "closer" to wildlife with a long lens, having a wide-angle lens with you can help you get interesting shots of smaller creatures and of course the critters that don't mind waltzing right up to you and your camera. If you're interested in portrait-like close-ups of insects and flowers, try your hand with a macro lens.
  • Tripod: A tripod or a monopod is an important tool for getting sharp photos. Having something with which to steady your camera -- or keep it pointed in a certain direction for a long time while waiting for a species to show up -- is something you'll really appreciate once you get your photos on your computer and see what a difference it makes. You'll be glad you have a great, sharp shot instead of a good but slightly fuzzy shot.
  • Camera bag with a field guide of local species is a must, or add some field guide apps to your smart phone. Here's a guide to 19 great apps to consider having on hand for species identification.
burrowing owl on rock

Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch -- A burrowing owl standing next to his nesting site. Taken near a busy soccer field in a marina in California, with a DSLR and 500mm lens

Tips and Tricks:

  • Go to parks that have plenty of trees, shrubs and walking trails. Places with ponds and lakes are especially ideal. These are areas where there is likely to be a larger diversity of wildlife, since there are more nooks and crannies to hide, hunt, nest and den.
  • Go early in the morning or in the early evening just before dusk. The benefits of this include more active wildlife, better light, and best of all, fewer people.
  • Go on weekdays. Weekends are prime time for humans to enjoy a city park so try as much as you can to photograph on weekdays when there are fewer people and the animals are more abundant and relaxed.
  • Walk the same trails every day. Not only do you get familiar with the trails, and can spot any new animal activity more easily, but you never know what you're going to see in the same locations especially as the seasons change. You'll learn more about the seasonal patterns, like mating, nesting, denning and migration, which will make it easier to plan for when to go out for certain types of shots of certain species.
  • Remember you're in an urban setting, so consider your safety with expensive camera equipment. Keep an eye and both ears out for suspicious folks who may want to steal your gear. Covering up any logos and brand names on your camera body, lenses and camera bag with gaffers tape is a good way to make your gear look less worthy of theft.
  • Remember you're in an urban setting, so consider what wild things you might run into that have nothing to do with other species. Let's face it, humans can be, um, interesting and city parks often host a lot of interesting people. So just be aware that you may run into some strange folks, take it in stride, and have an exit strategy.
  • Be patient and take your time: wildlife will come closer if you stay still, just like in non-urban settings. So make yourself comfortable and sit quietly. Also be patient with other people. There will be noisy kids and dogs that will scare off critters, but remember, they're just enjoying the park too. On the other hand, people who feed the wildlife may also help bring it closer (but see our rules to follow below before you consider feeding wildlife yourself).
  • Go on guided nature walks with park rangers or docents. Many larger parks or preserves just on the outskirts of town will have guided hikes or walks where you can learn all about the species of flora and fauna found there. Learning as much as you can about the area will take you much farther in knowing what to photograph when, and how. Plus, making friends with rangers and docents can lead to excellent insider information about locations or the arrival of certain species you want to photograph.
  • Join Flickr groups, Facebook groups and other wildlife photography groups and forums that center around wildlife photography in your local area. You'll learn what creatures are living there, and sometimes exactly where the animals are located. They're an invaluable tool for both meeting great people who share your interest and for staying inspired. Just remember that when people don't share information about where they got a certain shot, it's probably for the benefit of the animal. If it's a raptor or rare bird on the nest, it wouldn't do the animal much good to have dozens of curious photographers staring at them. So also be selective about what information you give out as well -- think of the animal's well-being first, and being generous with information second.
bobcat walking through a field

Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch -- A bobcat walking through a meadow. Taken in the early morning in a park in Marin, California, with a DSLR and 500mm lens

Rules to follow:

  • Keep a respectful distance. Even urban wildlife needs its space. Never scare a bird off a nest, or get so close that an animal feels the need to move away from you, just to get a shot. It's not healthy for the wildlife and you'll also lose the chance to see some really interesting behaviors. It's far better to keep your distance and be patient, getting shots of unique and natural behaviors, than to push for a shot and risk the animal's well-being.
  • Never feed the wildlife (even if other people are doing it). There are a couple good reasons to follow this rule. First, animals that get used to being fed are at risk. Not only is their general health at risk from eating the junk food so many people toss to them, but their very lives are at risk. As wildlife like raccoons become accustomed to being fed, they lose their natural wariness of humans and can become too assertive for comfort. This can lead to their needing to be trapped, and often killed, by park rangers. Second, an abundance of predictable food can stop migrating birds from leaving. This disrupts the balance of not only your own local ecosystem, but the ecosystem to which they're supposed to be migrating. So be kind, and don't be "one of those" who feed the wildlife, no matter how tempted you are to bring them closer to your lens. 
river otter looking through reeds

Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch -- A curious river otter watches me through the reeds. Taken at Sutro Baths, a very popular area of San Francisco, with a DSLR and 400mm lens

More related posts on MNN: