It’s time once again for an annual “best of” post. Again this year I have limited the gallery to a dozen of my favorite images and I added a few comments about each shot for some backstory. I hope you enjoy them.
They’re arranged roughly chronologically and
clicking on a photo will take you to the full gallery with many other favorites from 2016 that didn’t quite make it into this post .
Amazing things happen when you least expect it. I came around a corner on a road in Wyoming in January and saw four coyotes run up steep rocky hill. When they got to the top of a rocky ledge, three bighorn ewes popped over the top and stood on the cliff face. Smart sheep! And smart coyotes, too. They knew they couldn’t get at the sheep where they were, so just as quickly as the chase started, it ended. For predators like these coyotes it doesn’t pay to waste precious energy on a lost cause in sub-zero weather, so the whole encounter lasted only a minute or two. In addition to be an interesting wildlife interaction shot, this photo has the distinction of becoming a two-page spread in a national magazine. That automatically qualifies it as a favorite for me!
January was also the month of the great bobcat photo op. Even in an area known for cats, you are never guaranteed to see any, but a group of friends and I had a magnificent day with this cat. We were able to watch hunt up and down a river in Wyoming for much of the day. Just as the day ended we watched in amazement as the cat leapt far out into the river, disappeared completely under the water for a moment, and emerged with a fat muskrat. It was spectacular. I came away from that encounter with so many bobcat photos that I still haven’t fully processed them all. With so many good shots, it was tough to choose one, but this is my current favorite. It just says “predator” to me and I have a large metal print of it hanging in my home.
It’s all about the feet. In 2016 I spent much of March in northern Minnesota and northern Wisconsin working on a magazine project involving hares. While this shot didn’t make it into print, I just love that you can so clearly see why Varying hares are often called “snowshoe” hares. Those feet are impossibly, comically huge… and perfectly adapted for running on the snow. This particular hare was soaking wet from all the melting snow dripping down from the spruce trees it was hiding under on a warm March afternoon.
If you know me at all, you know that I love wide open grasslands and the critters that live there. Some of my best friends are prairie dogs, Black-footed ferrets, and Swift foxes. I especially love Burrowing owls. They’re tenacious hunters, and brave to a fault. I once watched a pair viciously attack a badger which approached their nest. As the name suggests, the little raptors live in abandoned prairie dog burrows. They are primarily insect eaters, with the occasional small rodent or reptile added to their menu. This one was obediently catching a variety of insects (a hornet, in this case) and bringing them back to its mate at the burrow in Buffalo Gap Grasslands in South Dakota.
I spent almost all of July in Alaska, and while I knew I had to visit Brooks Falls at Katmai National Park, I also knew that there are literally millions of photos of bears catching salmon there. I wanted to try some long exposures to get the feel of the powerful falls juxtaposed with the big, beautiful bears. I took somewhere around 1100 long-exposure shots varying between 1/16 second up to about 3 full seconds. It takes some time produce that many long-exposures. It’s not like average wildlife photo ops where I’m spraying and praying at 12 frames-per-second. And the bear has to remain absolutely still for it to work out. Of those 1100 frames, there were four I was satisfied with. This one is the best.
For varieties sake I wasn’t going to post any bear cub photos in this year’s favorites list, but these two are pretty tough to ignore. This photo was also taken at Katmai National Park, and these Brown bear cubs-of-the-year belong to the bear in the long-exposure above. They were the most well-behaved, patient young cubs I’ve ever photographed. They sat together like this for ages waiting for the sow to catch a salmon. When she did, the larger cub would carefully walk through the rapid water to sniff and tug at the fish while the sow ate the best bits. While the cubs were sitting together like this they never squabbled with each other, which is unusual. They just waited for mom, occasionally glancing at the tourists watching them from the viewing platform. Most of those tourists had cameras, of course, which means there are probably thousands of similar photos out there. I don’t ordinarily enjoy those kind of photo ops, but the cubs are still dang cute.
Another shot from Katmai, Alaska, but this time far from the crowded falls. The best part of this experience was I was the only photographer there as this Brown bear wandered back and forth on this tiny peninsula for a long while. I took dozens of shots of him in various postures – some sitting, some laying down, and even some with float planes landing in the background – but this one just makes me smile more than the others. I don’t know why.
Photographing Barren Ground Caribou on the tundra was one of the primary reasons I went to Alaska. I had never seen wild Caribou before, and they didn’t disappoint! To get this shot I had to belly crawl along the back side of a ridge, staying out of view of this bull and another one. At the same time I was keeping one eye on a Grizzly sow with two cubs-of-the-year. The three bears had just crossed the same ridge, but fortunately they kept going and I could concentrate on the bulls. Unfortunately, the two caribou winded me before I could photograph them bedded down. At least this one paused to look at me, and just look at that white beard!
This Bugling bull elk is another shot I set out specifically to get. I’ve always wanted to get a full-frame, in-your-face shot where you can almost feel his breath. A close-up shot like that is the only way I know to see the incredible textures these old bulls are made of. So I was very pleased when this big Colorado bugler came up over a rise, very early one morning and floored me with his wild music. Nothing says September in the Rockies like bugling elk.
This may have been my proudest moment of 2016. I saw these Blue-winged teal circling an island on a lake in northern Wisconsin in early October. There was only time for four frames, handle-holding my biggest glass. Given how fast those teal were moving, and the fact I had to run to a shooting position at the lake shore before they disappeared around a corner, I was pretty sure none of those four frames would be any good. This one was.
November means the rut, when big bucks lose much of their natural caution and start chasing does in broad daylight – well, almost broad daylight. In fact, this shot was taken well before sunrise, at 1/15th of a second, and the buck is back lit, making the shot even more challenging. But modern cameras and lenses are really something if you use good technique. I don’t normally add the tech specs, but in this case it was taken with a Canon 5DmkIII, 1/15th sec, 700mm (500mm & 1.4 teleconverter,) f/5.6, Exposure bias was -1, ISO 1000, on a Gitzo CF monopod. It’s also just cropped a tiny bit to straighten.
Some photos do better in Black & White. Especially when there are contrasting textures you want to emphasize. That’s the case with this Bighorn ram. Between the teeth just peeking from his slightly drawn upper lip, to the death-ray eyes, to the undulating layers of horn, there was so much texture to look at that B&W was the only way to go. An artist friend of mine recently used this image as a study for an amazing drawing, too. That also makes the image special to me.
Bonus image –
A bonus photo, just because I love this quote so much — “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing… about in boats — or with boats. In or out of ’em, it doesn’t matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you’ve done it there’s always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you’d much better not.” – from “The Wind in the Willows” by Kenneth Grahame
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