Down on Their Level
A wildlife photographer on how she captured images of Washington's endangered pygmy rabbits
When wildlife photographer Morgan Heim was asked to document efforts to protect the endangered Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit (read Nature Conservancy magazine's Winter 2021 cover story, "A Big Plan to Save a Tiny Rabbit”), she was “stoked,” she says. Heim lives in the Pacific Northwest and had followed the story of the nearly extinct Washington rabbits for years. But the assignment presented a challenge: How do you photograph a rare and tiny animal?
"It's hard to get close to such a skittish animal, nor would you want to do that when you're trying to be respectful of the critter," she says. And the sagebrush the rabbits nibble on doesn't make it any easier.
“It’s a really chaotic, dense, low-to-the-ground habitat with lots of gnarly vegetation, too,” she says. “And the animal is very small, so it doesn’t even extend above the grass.”
So Heim turned to camera traps. She coordinated with field staff and scientists involved in the rabbit recovery project out of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to set up camera traps near known rabbit burrows. Triggered by movement, the cameras could capture pictures of the animals without startling them.
It worked: Heim’s traps captured dozens of pictures of rabbits. “So many of my pictures are these out-of-focus blurred butts of bunnies, just sitting there so close to the camera, or crawling on it, or just hanging out,” she says. "They just didn't seem to mind too much."
A few pictures in particular excited Heim. In one, two pygmy rabbits are captured on camera nose-to-nose—a level of social behavior not typically found among these rabbits. Heim shared the image with the biologists involved in the project as documentation of this rare behavior.
"Maybe the imagery—in addition to capturing a little bit more of the heart and soul of the whole effort—may have also contributed something exciting for them as scientists," she says. "Maybe nothing will come of it moving forward, or maybe it'll raise some new questions for them to look at or get them excited to use more trail cams to see what other kinds of behaviors they can capture."
Read the magazine story
The photo at the top of this page ran on the cover of Nature Conservancy magazine's Winter 2021 issue, which featured the story, "A Big Plan to Save a Tiny Rabbit," about the combined efforts of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, The Nature Conservancy, and a number of other partners to help save the endangered rabbits from near extinction.