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Best of 2020: Favorite Photos and Moments of the Year

Twenty-twenty. Ugh.

I’m not sure there’s much I can say about this mess of a year that hasn’t already been expressed. I was among the countless people that were affected professionally by COVID-19, so it was a decidedly different kind of year. Looking back at the last twelve months, I actually consider myself fortunate that it started off with a bang: my best-ever winter trip to Yellowstone, my first wild lynx sighting, and a successful first gig speaking and leading tours at the Winter Wings Festival in Oregon. That was all in the first six weeks of the year. After that? Well, you know…

Yellowstone dominated this year, in terms of actual photography. I’m pretty lucky that I was able to make three more trips to the park, including two with family, all while staying relatively isolated at our property. Every park trip is special. These even more so given the circumstances, and the fact that every one of my other trips in 2020 was cancelled. It was setting up to be a banner year: South Africa, Brazil, and Alaska were also on the docket. But there are positives to being stuck at home. Family time, first and foremost. Even in terms of work, the year was… well, I wouldn’t say it was really productive (balancing work with full time at-home parenting was very challenging), but I did manage to tackle a number of new and different projects.

In addition to the talk I gave in Oregon, I recently completed an online presentation for a scout troop. These are the first real speaking gigs I’ve undertaken during my stint as a pro photographer, and it seems like an overdue step in the evolution of my career. Earlier in the year I got back into video editing and produced some educational content on my neglected YouTube channel. I managed to revisit some old trips and reprocess a few image collections for the archive (most notably, my 2007 Tanzania trip), and I had fun publishing a five-part retrospective on my first fifty Yellowstone trips. There’s still a long way to go and much more work to be done both with video and older images, but any progress is good. It was also a solid year for store sales—much needed to make up for the lack of tours!—so thanks to all of you who supported my business this year.

My final missed trip in 2020 was a return to London for the Wildlife Photographer of the Year. It would have been such fun celebrating another honor at the Natural History Museum, this time with more friends who also made it in, so cancelling that trip was one of the greater disappointments of the year for me. But the honor remains special to me, and I’ll keep my fingers crossed for a future opportunity to celebrate WPY again.

 

Best Photos and Standout Moments of 2020

Okay, let’s get to these photos. Because of my limited time in the field this year, I didn’t bother putting together a “Not Quite Best Of” list. It’s just the selections below this time. As always, this list is not limited to the highest quality images. It includes several photos depicting the most memorable moments from the past twelve months.  They’re listed in chronological order. If you missed my previous year-end favorites that I’ve featured since I started the blog, check ’em out here: 20192018, 2017, 2016, 2015.

 

January 17: The Wapitis

Gray Wolves

That January Yellowstone trip was a doozy, in large part thanks to the Wapiti Lake Pack. The Wapitis are one of the park’s largest wolf packs, but also one that has given me the slip on past winter trips (while they’ve put on a show for so many other people). This year, I finally got my chance. It all started with a roadside show from about 100 yards on my first day of exploration. That actually coincided with the 25th anniversary of the re-release of wolves in Yellowstone. A fitting way to celebrate. But the Wapitis weren’t done.

Several days later, they reappeared farther east and put on an even better show. This time most of the pack was there. I counted sixteen (out of an estimated 19), which tied for the most wolves I’ve ever seen together. The pack gathered on a hillside across the Yellowstone River, and eventually several of them splintered off and sprinted down toward the water. I was set up on the opposite side of the canyon, and watched as the wolves looked for a place to cross (they were presumably hoping to reach a carcass on the other side). They probed various points in the river and even waded half-way across before turning back. Then they came back in my direction, which is when I snapped this shot of the winding line of wolves. I could nitpick this shot. I was a bit far away, and the falling snow made it difficult to capture finer details… but it sure has resonated with my audience this year, and it definitely represents how special the encounters with this pack were on this trip. I usually only get to see a few wolves together at a time, so capturing several pack members from this angle was a unique opportunity.

See a short video of the Wapiti Pack featuring clips recorded during the January trip.

 

January 21: Roadside Wolf

Gray Wolf

The previous image and many of the shots I took of the Wapitis are perhaps more unique than this portrait, but it’s really the encounter itself that separates this one from the, er… pack. Yes, this is another Wapiti Lake Pack member. This was from my third different great encounter with them over two weeks, and occurred while leading a tour. At this point, our group was in the Yellowstone interior, and we were watching the Wapitis along the Madison River alongside a few other tour groups. Yes, the pack had come back down into the interior… they’re all over the park in winter. We had been watching a couple wolves walking along the shoreline in the distance when suddenly, this wolf popped out of the woods right on front of everyone.

It was shocking, thrilling, and honestly, a bit nerve-wracking. I had been walking over to check on some of my clients when the wolf appeared, so I was suddenly stuck out in the open in front of it. Everyone cleared out of the way, and I backed off to the side, wading into deep snow in order to clear space so it could cross the road. It’s definitely an uncomfortable situation, being caught unawares like that and doing your best to not impede a wild animal’s progress. Thankfully, everyone was respectful and quiet, and made space for the wolf to cross the road. We were gifted with an unexpected and very memorable encounter.

See more wolf photos from this trip!

 

January 22: Two Weasels

Long-Tailed Weasel

Long-Tailed Weasel

There’s more than one reason the January trip was my best-ever winter visit to Yellowstone. If it weren’t for all the wolves, the weasels may have been the highlight. Our tour had moved to the park’s northern range, and in one particular spot, a weasel had been seeing scampering about… before we arrived on the scene. Nothing was happening when we got there, but we decided to wait it out for a bit. Maybe an hour later, a weasel finally appeared.

Long-tailed weasels are mostly white, but thanks to the black tip on their tail that doesn’t change color, I never thought I’d ever see a fully white weasel. But that’s what appeared. The tip of its tail was gone, so it had even better winter camouflage. Weasels aren’t rare in the park, but they are difficult to find and even harder to photograph. A few years since my last weasel photo op, it took me a little while to get back in the flow, trying to track such a quick subject. It was a lot of fun, and that was before the second weasel appeared! It wasn’t hard to figure out that we were dealing with two different individuals, as the second still sported the black tip of its tail.

The second animal in particular was a prolific hunter, and brought his fourth vole in an hour closer to the road so we could get some pictures. It was my first time seeing two weasels in the same spot (sadly, they never exactly got together, each hunting on their own). What a great experience to share with clients.

See more wildlife photos from this trip.

 

February 7: My First Lynx

Canada Lynx

Look, there’s no question I wanted better lynx photos. But there wasn’t even any guarantee I’d actually get to see a Canada lynx during a short trip to Manitoba. While many of my peers have been finding their own wild lynx in places like Montana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, British Columbia, and Ontario in recent years, I’d been eyeing a trip to Riding Mountain National Park for some time. Finally, I put the trip together with a couple of friends, and with the help of local photographer Paul Hancock, we set out to find our first wild lynx. The national park is practically devoid of human activity during winter, and there’s relatively little territory to explore. So I felt our odds were okay for a sighting in our three days.

It proved to be a challenge. Exploring such a small area, largely devoid of wildlife activity much of the time, can be a bit monotonous. We spent a lot of time staring at snow and examining tracks. And that’s how I found my first lynx. On a morning that dipped to -38F, I stepped out of the vehicle to check out what appeared to be a fresh set of footprints near the road. Following them around a corner, I almost stepped on this cat!

It was a younger lynx (2 years old), and just sat there, facing away from me, while I excitedly motioned to my friends in the car to back up. The lynx slowly started moving. It walked a few paces, and then settled into the snow. Based on the encounters my peers have reported, I’d been under the impression that these cats are incredibly calm and tolerant creatures, and that was the case with this one. The only problem was that we never got a good, clear photo op! This was the best I could come up with. After this, it just kept moving back into the deeper, denser vegetation.

Soon after this sighting, we drove up a hill to discover a mother with three kittens running through the trees. Again, far too much brush to come away with any decent photos. And that was it for our lynx sightings for the trip! A lot of work, with little to show for it in terms of photos, but one heck of a great memory tracking down my first Canada lynx on foot.

See more photos from this trip.

 

June 3: Uinta Ground Squirrel at Soda Butte

Uinta Ground Squirrel

I was pretty excited to hit the road and get back to Yellowstone in the spring. After being cooped up at home for so long, it was a nice change of pace to get to a place where I could not only get back behind the lens, but also explore outdoors without having to worry about running into too many people. As an added bonus, it was a road trip with my dad, with whom I took my first park trip back in 1988. Just family, no clients (don’t get me wrong, I love my clients… so it was more about “no responsibilities”) for two weeks. It had been ages since I’ve had that much time to explore the park independently.

One of the coolest things about this trip was the weather. It was constantly changing, with thunderstorms rolling through almost daily. This made for some wonderful scenery and backdrops (highlighted by my dad’s hand-held capture of a lightning bolt striking behind some bison). On one occasion, a storm was passing over the Lamar Valley when the sun starting shining through. There was definitely rainbow potential. The problem was, we couldn’t find a good subject to compose in front of the rainbow once it finally appeared. Bison would be ideal. Instead, we drove all the way to Soda Butte, which I knew could be our fallback option in the absence of some living scenery.

However, once we got there I stumbled upon an accidental participant that turned my landscape into an animalscape. A Uinta ground squirrel huddled under the edge of the thermal formation while the rainbow shone over the eastern valley in the background. A nice alternative ending to our search.

 

June 14: Black Wolf

Gray Wolf

If 2020 had a title, in my book it would be The Virus and the Wolf. Wolves played a prominent role during my few adventures this past year. During the spring trip, I could tell my father was hoping we’d see a wolf up close. Many years ago, he was with me when we had the Lamar Canyon Pack crossing the road around us… only to be ushered forward and off the road by park personnel (so, no photos). During this year’s spring visit, our attention regarding wolves was being pulled in two different directions. The Wapitis had been very active down south in Hayden Valley (a very long drive from our home base in Silver Gate due to a pass closure), while the Junction Butte wolves had been crossing the road in front of people off and on up north. We kept hearing about the close Junction encounters from others for a while until we finally caught the tail end of one such crossing. Not “dot” photos, but something decent.

After that we actually did get to see a few of the Wapitis down south one morning. The white alpha female crossed a ridge line in morning light, but at a fair distance. As our final full day of the trip neared, we were faced with a dilemma: stick to the north or head south once more. We chose the closer option, also knowing that views had been better and a bit more consistent there. I spotted someone I knew as we drove along that morning, so I stopped to get an update from them. They had a black wolf in view, some distance away. I soon lost sight of it and decided to drive further to see if we could get a better view. And boy, did we!

The wolf popped up right over the hillside. We remained with the car, and even had to stop oncoming traffic as the wolf neared the road and crossed. One heck of a way to finish off a Yellowstone visit. As a postscript, we believe we actually saw this same wolf approaching a different stretch of road the next morning, as we were starting our long drive home. No photos, but a fitting coda to what was a great trip.

See more photos from the Yellowstone Spring 2020 trip.

 

July 18: Comet NEOWISE and Husky Stadium

The arrival of Comet NEOWISE over our skies reminded me a lot of the 2017 solar eclipse. It was a rare phenomenon that didn’t really fall within my area of interest. I’m not much of a landscape photographer, much less an astrophotographer. As with the eclipse, I sat around sort of ignoring the urge to document this rare event for some time. It started appearing over Northwest skies in July—in the middle of the night, also not in my wheelhouse—and for the first week or so I would look at the occasional amazing photo someone took over Seattle, Mt. Rainier, or surrounding areas. And, just as was the case in 2017, I talked myself into trying for it at the very last minute.

In its final week in the sky, the comet had changed position. It was fainter, but it was also showing up earlier in the night. Based on its position (yes, I actually did some research beforehand), I figured I could, at the very least, try to photograph the comet above my favorite building: the University of Washington’s Husky Stadium. I certainly would’ve liked a more vibrant comet (this pales in comparison to Liron Gertsman’s shot in my Peers collection), but the light pollution was preventing that. Still, I was happy that my last-minute endeavor paid off with a few pretty photos of the stadium and the comet together. Lots of bonus beaver sightings and Barred Owl hoots in the darkness of the Arboretum too!

See a few more shots of the comet.

 

October 11: The Family’s Back in Yellowstone

Taz in Silver Gate

In my son’s first year, we took him to Yellowstone twice. That was three years ago, and neither he nor Jenn had been back since. COVID seemed like a perfect excuse to go hide out at our property for a couple weeks, but we didn’t actually manage to put together a plan until fall. This was a trip during which I did not expect to take many wildlife photos. But I didn’t care. I wanted us to get away, and also hoped to finally give our boy a proper introduction to both our property and the national park now that he’s a bit older.

The trip was… fantastic. Even though I never had much opportunity to go search for wildlife, we managed to make it outside nearly every day. Our son is old enough to tackle some shorter hikes now, which was a perfect excuse for me to explore new territory. In three days he hiked eleven miles! Not bad for a three-year-old. As an added treat, it snowed in Silver Gate near the end of the trip. He was beyond excited to get out and explore our property in the snow.

I typically judge my Yellowstone trips based on the photo ops and wildlife encounters, but it seemed like I’d been anticipating this one—and specifically the opportunity to let our boy finally meet the park and our second home—for years. It was a big payoff.

 

October 21: Weasel in Transition

Long-tailed weasel

The highlight of my second October trip to Yellowstone was provided by this long-tailed weasel. Yup, just like wolves, weasels made it on this list a couple times. Like the first weasel moment in January, this one offered another “first.” It was my first time seeing a weasel in the transition phase between its brown summer and white winter coats. I was back in the park for a week or so—this time for photography!—and we stopped at Gull Point Drive down on Yellowstone Lake. This is traditionally my turn-around point on the east side of the park. Everything south is heavily treed, and therefore not great for wildlife spotting. So I usually take a quick drive down this loop before turning back north.

It’s usually a fruitless stop. Gull Point is a beautiful spot that seems ripe with potential. My most exciting Gull Point moments to date had actually “only” involved pelicans and woodpeckers. But it seems like an ideal spot for otter, owl, or marten sightings, so I keep coming back. In this case, we had just returned to the car when my friend spotted movement out of his window. I looked out my door and thought it was a squirrel, except that the color was all wrong. I couldn’t recall which Yellowstone critter was mocha colored… and then I finally got a good look at this little one.

As a bonus, the weasel climbed up into the tree, providing another first. Though I’ve seen a weasel scamper into a tree before (they’re usually considered ground-based, while their larger cousin the marten is more of a climber), this was my first chance to get photos. These are small moments that don’t necessarily exhibit unusual or rare behavior, but whenever I see something like this for the first time, I get a kick out of it. That’s why I keep returning to places like Yellowstone. The mantra I associate with the park: You’ll always see something new. That proved, once again, to be the case. And it turned out Gull Point continued to deliver. We returned a few times after this day, and though we never saw the weasel again (or the marten that was leaving tracks everywhere), we had some more excellent photo opportunities with other species there.

 

Photo of the Year, October 22: Another Dead Fox

Dead fox in road

We went from a major high at Gull Point to one of the most disappointing moments I’ve experienced during my park trips. On the morning of October 22nd, the park had been shut down due to winter storms. We were hopeful the gate would open in the morning, and even drove down from Silver Gate to check, but the gate remained closed. So we had to find something to do, opting to drive the opposite direction, past Cooke City and up toward the Beartooth Wilderness. Everything was white and beautiful. No wildlife, however, and we eventually turned around.

Before returning to the cabin, we decided to check on the park entrance one more time, in case it had opened during our half hour of exploration. We had just reached the edge of Silver Gate when this sight greeted us.

Red foxes have been a long-time resident of our town. It’s common to see their tracks on our property after a fresh snowfall overnight. Sometimes our guests see them during the day. If there was a vote on a town mascot, the fox would be a good candidate. Unfortunately, we keep losing them. People who are driving to and from the national park barrel through the border towns at high speeds constantly. To compound matters, some people stop and feed foxes out their car window (something that’s illegal inside Yellowstone, but which is difficult to prevent outside the park), so the foxes get used to the road and lose their fear of vehicles. Combine speed and a relaxed familiarity, and these types of accidents are bound to continue.

The photos from my fall 2020 trips have not yet been processed. Stay tuned!


More Year in Review Content:

Please note: I chose to forgo a photo yearbook this year due to my limited activity in 2020. Hopefully the yearbook will be back next year covering 24 months of photo adventures.

Also see:

My 2020 Favorites from Entertainment and Literature

The Top Work From My Peers in 2020

Best of 2019

Best of 2018

Best of 2017

Best of 2016

Best of 2015

4 Comments

  1. Reny January 15, 2021 Reply

    Love that roadside wolf and the lynx and ofcoure Taz with his awesome hat!
    I can’t wait to see the fall pictures (I’m a fall person) but for now I’m enjoying your Yellowstone tripreports.

    I know this is difficult to answer but when you think of 2020 do you have 1 (only 1) favorite picture yourself?

    • Author
      Max January 15, 2021 Reply

      Hi Reny! I think the fox is my “photo of the year,” if that’s what you meant. For the longest time I was leaning toward to roadside wolf, but I think the fox shot is more impactful and meaningful.

  2. Reny January 15, 2021 Reply

    Thanks Max, I remember the whole story about the fox, can imagine that that shot is more impactful and meaningful.

    Have fun.

  3. Reny January 16, 2021 Reply

    Ha ha, I went straight to the report, without reading your tekst “the image I picked as my most memorable of the past twelve months”
    NOW I read it….

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