Finding Nature in the City: A Young Photographer’s Quest

Photo of a creek with the water rushing over and around medium-sized boulders. On the banks of the creek, trees are showing the yellows, oranges, and reds of fall. Rock Creek winds through the heart of Washington, DC. © Dhruv Cohen
Rock Creek winds through the heart of Washington, DC. © Dhruv Cohen

Most adults don’t think of young people as nature photographers, or of there being lots of wildlife in a big city. Wrong on both counts! Dhruv Cohen is a high school student who lives in Washington, DC, and is interested in biology and mathematics. He’s also an avid bird photographer. And he has a lot to say about photography, wildlife, and the experience of being out in nature with a camera.

I was introduced to Cohen by a mutual acquaintance, Seth Meyerhorst, a wildlife photographer who also frequents Rock Creek Park. We had been talking about how few people knew just how much wildlife there was in the city and whether potential young nature photographers were aware of the opportunities so close at hand. That’s when Meyerhorst suggested I meet Dhruv Cohen.

Getting started

Cohen has been attracted to photography for a long time. For his sixth birthday, he received a red polaroid camera and at eight went with his family to Yellowstone on vacation. He absolutely loved it. “Everyone in the family took a lot of photos,” he said. “My family and family friends worked at National Geographic. A lot of people in my life were big into photography, I’m not surprised that photography fell into my lap.”

His interest in birding came later. His grandparents had a house in the woods with a lot of birds around them. “A downy woodpecker kept banging and tearing a hole in the house. I loved it!” So, he got a better camera more suited for bird photography. Today, his main kit is his grandfather’s Canon 6D MK II and 400 mm lens.

One of Cohen’s most memorable experiences happened the summer between eighth and ninth grade when his grandparents took him to Kenya. (His grandfather had wanted to take the family there for a long time.) “It was most memorable for me because of the tremendous biodiversity we saw.  Huge animals, fearless, vast landscapes.  We’d go for miles without seeing people. It’s just you and nature,” he said. “We’d get up at 5:30 a.m. for sunrise, see wildlife during golden hour, sleep in middle of day, and go out again in late afternoon.” Exhausting but exhilarating!

A barred owl sitting on a tree branch looking straight at the camera.
Barred owl © Dhruv Cohen

Wildlife in Washington

He started noticing more birds near his home in DC. “I love the experience of watching wildlife and birds. I can sit for hours,” he said. “Photography lets me remember those experiences and show others. I like surprising my friends and family with what I was able to see, just around where I live.”

In a world that’s full of distractions, from TikTok and Instagram to video games, Netflix and more, what’s the attraction of wildlife and photography? “Photography is, at least to me, more interactive than videogames or TV. You have to learn to observe closely and anticipate what the bird will do without disturbing it. It’s hard!” But it’s rewarding, too. “I like showing other people, sharing the experience I had, showing them what I love and what I was able to see. Other people—my friends and family—didn’t see the same things as I saw.”

“People don’t realize that, in the middle of the city, tons of animals come through!” He’s seen wild turkeys and coyotes in the middle of Washington, DC. He’s seen foxes in the neighborhood while out walking his dog. “Most of my friends have never seen a coyote, but they’re here if you take the time to observe and look.”

Cohen had “an amazing moment” with a fox this past winter. He saw a fox laying down in a neighbor’s yard. He got his camera and slowly approached, taking care not to frighten or disturb it. “It was amazing how close it allowed me to get. Then the fox got up and approached me to investigate!”

Photo of a ciicada climbing out of its exoskeleton. Brood X cicada molting © Dhruv Cohen
Brood X cicada molting © Dhruv Cohen

Migration stop

Last year, Cohen spent time closely observing bird migrations through Washington. “Before then, I didn’t know that warblers, tanagers, and orioles came through the city, mostly in some of the larger parks. I saw 20 species in one day in Rock Creek Park,” he said. That got him excited and he’s now a regular visitor in Rock Creek Park, where he’s met other nature photographers.

“Over time I’ve gotten familiar with where birds hang out and I recently got really interested in owls. They’re so elusive I thought I’d never see one.” Last year, he got his first look at one. Seth Meyerhorst, one of the photographers he met in the park, pointed out a nest. “I saw two little owlets.  I was blown away! I never thought I’d see an owl near my home. The more I went back the more I started seeing owls, in the park and in the city.” He’s since seen an owl’s nest in someone’s back yard, just outside DC near a playground. And he’s heard a great horned owl’s call coming from a giant tree in a neighbor’s yard. (He used the Merlin Bird ID app’s new Sound ID feature to be sure of the species.) “Since we’re in their space, I guess they are going to live with us and us with them.”

Back in January, a painted bunting was seen outside Washington, along the C&O Canal near Great Falls. This rare sighting attracted a lot of birders and bird photographers, lining up along the bank of the canal. Cohen went out to see it “but it felt weird to see so many photographers and a bird so far out of its area.”

Growing up in a city or urbanized area, you don’t think of nature being all around you and of opportunities for nature photography being so close, but they are. Peregrine falcons are often seen in DC and have nested in one of the Potomac River Bridges. Red-tailed hawks have nested in the towers of Washington National Cathedral. And there are opossums, raccoons, butterflies, bees, flowers, plants, and other photogenic subjects. Even weeds growing on the cracked concrete of an old playground can make for a good photo.

Dhruv Cohen gets the last word. “It’s weird how much nature there is in a city if you look for it, know what to look for, and where to find it.” You can see more of his work on Instagram @dcdc_photography.