Peninsula resident Katharina Pierini has compiled a unique glimpse into the unseen world of Bay Area wildlife
By Charles Russo
Katharina Pierini is surprisingly quick to refer to herself as “skittish.”
That can come across as a bit of a dubious admission, especially if you’ve seen the images of her in action— with a chainsaw strapped to her back as she rides a dirt bike on unregulated trails — which clearly suggest that she is worthy of bolder adjectives. Yet Pierini’s caution is quite logical, as it largely stems from how her hobby has made her all-too-keenly aware of the environment around her.
“I’m kinda jumpy as a person, and then combining that with the number of animals that I’ve seen…” she says, trailing off. “As much as I love them, I fear them.”
For the past few years, Pierini has spent her spare time photographing the native wildlife on the San Mateo coastside by way of motion-triggered cameras. What began as her own sort of garage zoology has since rendered an extensive visual record of the local fauna: photographs of mountain lion families, cunning bobcats, and massive golden eagles, not to mention an array of videos which have captured a wide cross section of wilderness activity, from savage hunts to comedic encounters.
As a result, Pierini has been invited by universities to show her work and approached by San Mateo park officials for advice on trail cams, despite not having a formal background in wildlife biology (or photojournalism for that matter). But her imagery speaks for itself by providing a rare window into the often-hidden world of our local wildlife.
Just over three years ago, Pierini — an avid backpacker — was concluding a trip along the Skyline to the Sea trail, when she encountered what were clearly mountain lion tracks. Returning home later that day to her “cabin in the woods” amid the hills between Pescadero and Davenport, she caught a brief glimpse of one of these huge cougars running through her driveway. In then going inside to check her email, Pierini found a surveillance camera image that a friend had sent, showing a local mountain lion.
“It wasn’t even that good of a photo,” she explains, “but I thought, ‘I should try to get images like that, because I know these animals are out here.’”
Meet the neighbors
It took Pierini three months to get her first image of a mountain lion. It wasn’t a particularly good photo either: just a back-side view of a puma, at night. But rather than frustrate her, it only cemented her interest further, as her DIY wildlife photography project became a new layer to her love of the outdoors.
“It was an excuse for me to be outside even more,” she says, “and to explore where I live. I have access to 20,000 acres, which I can explore while doing this.”
Focusing on the private property where she rents in the coastside hills, Pierini began to hone the photography process: she increased the number of trail cameras and began employing Google Earth as a tool to map high traffic areas. Soon, the amount of wildlife activity she was capturing caught her by surprise.
“I had no idea,” she admits. “The amount that is going on at any given time is just incredible, and contains so many interactions we wouldn’t expect — odd or funny — that are happening constantly.”
After having struggled to capture a single mountain lion, Pierini soon found herself immersed in images, to the point where she began deleting the less compelling ones. This then caused her to strive for stronger compositions with more appealing backgrounds, rather than merely capturing the animals within the frame.
The process has its challenges. In 2009, the area suffered a huge wildfire, which has left a great number of dead and weakened trees which are easily toppled in a wind storm. So more than just checking cameras, Perini is often clearing trails, as she travels around by a Honda-80XR dirt bike and packing along a 14-inch-bar chainsaw.
In addition, the photography itself can be fickle and streaky. There are times when she doesn’t capture anything good for weeks, and others when quality images pour in with great abundance. Other problems exist as well, from the obvious (a simple bump from an animal can offset the compositions considerably) to the unexpected (the bobcats have a habit of spraying the camera lenses).
Most notably, she is constantly aware of the potential dangers. The cameras provide detailed times and dates for each image, and Pierieni can see exactly how close she has come to encountering the animals, particularly the mountain lions.
“One time my dog was acting kind of weird,” she says, “and we arrived to a camera to find an image taken just eight minutes earlier of a mountain lion looking down in the direction towards where we were approaching.”
Sitting beside a large projection screen in the Redwood Oak Room of the Costanoa Lodge along Highway One in Pescadero, Pierini gives her bi-weekly presentation of her trail camera material to a diverse audience, composed of in-the-know locals packed-in closely beside vacationing tourists. As she clicks between images and videos the viewers chime in with the kind of audible reactions you are more likely to hear while watching a heated NFL playoff game: they gasp, laugh and shake their heads, enamored with the feral universe they are witnessing.
Even more engaging is the nuance that Pierini charts out within the footage. She clicks to a video that begins like many others, with a single animal — in this case a bobcat — navigating the terrain. The view out to the ocean is worthwhile in itself, but it is the unfettered glimpse of such a solitary creature among the local landscape which is particularly special. Yet in a sort of comedic twist, a lone quail soon enters the frame bobbing about like an unhinged Muppet, clearly lacking both the grace and power of its feline neighbor. The juxtaposition between the two creatures is not only glaring but likely to end badly for the tiny bird. There is, as Pierini points out, a deeper purpose playing out.
“The sentinel — the male that is in charge — of this covey of quail is going to try to distract the bobcat,” she explains, “by both making a noise to warn the other ones of the predator, but also, should the bobcat decide to go for something, this quail is making itself visible and available. He’s a brave little guy.”
Similar to how she explains the measured behavior of the quail, Pierini highlights many other of these natural world nuances playing out in her videos: the steady squawk of a scrub jay intended to announce the arrival of a predator, or the reasons for why a fox family hunts with their young in shifts.
In addition to her own research, Pierini is often contacted by formal experts who convey to her the subtleties of what is taking place.
“My research is a little bit backwards in a way,” she says. “After I capture things, my interest is piqued and I learn about them from there. Other times, someone alerts me to what is actually happening.”
Looking ahead, Pierini would like to see the development of a collective database, where her style of work can be added, viewed and discussed for purposes of research and education.
Now a full three years into her project, she has captured such a sizable amount of imagery and footage that she struggles to store it all. When asked during her presentation if there is a type of photo or video which she still hopes to capture, Pierini expresses that even after every prize capture, something new always surfaces.
“I don’t know exactly, because I’m still being surprised. I guess capturing a mountain lion fight would be exciting,” she admits, before pausing to add, “just as long as it doesn’t end too badly.”
Katharina Pierini’s work can be viewed on Instagram @Bergundwald
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