It was nice to have a year in which I could pick a decent crop of favorite images and have a list of runners-up that didn’t quite make it. Twenty-Twenty-One gave me more opportunities to travel and get out to take pictures, and I enjoyed spending time reliving some of these moments as I whittled down my list. In some cases, these “moments” represent a broader theme that played out during an adventure, rather than any single animal or snapshot in time.
Enjoy the Not Quite Best of the Year, and be sure to check back in a few days for both the Best of 2021 from my peers, and my own favorite images of the year.
January 14: Striped Skunk
I was driving through Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley late on a winter afternoon, followed by a couple friends in their own vehicles. As my eyes scanned the mix of snow- and sage-covered hills, I spied movement in the distance. An animal was picking its way along the northern slop. Something was odd. The movement wasn’t familiar. It didn’t match the usual suspects (coyote, fox) in this area, and even from a ways away the color seemed off. I slowed and looked through binoculars… a skunk!!!
Now, you’re saying, “a skunk?!” Which is exactly what one of my friends muttered after I hurriedly pulled off the road. He didn’t share my excitement. But in this case it was my very first Yellowstone skunk (an animal that showed up on the Yellowstone wish list I published a few years ago), and in fact it was the first striped skunk I’d ever seen alive. All of my previous sightings of this species involved road kill on highways. Skunks are often forgotten by folks who are accounting for Yellowstone’s wide array of mammals, but they are seen in the park on rare occasions (more often in winter, it seems). It simply took me 50+ trips before I had my lucky moment. This is sort of one of those typical Rare or Unusual Mammal Sightings that gets me a little overexcited, so it’s not too surprising to see it on one of my year-end lists.
Producing even this simple photo was a lot of work too. The skunk had a good head start, but that didn’t keep me from tromping out into the snow in hopes of snapping at least one decent shot. It was exhausting, and after several stops to catch my breath I did get within decent range, but the skunk never really turned back to look at me. It just kept trotting at a steady pace, and being small and light meant it could easily traverse the surface of the snow. So I finally stopped and waited for it to reach the higher hills, where I hoped it would turn and give me an opportunity to snap a profile shot. For a brief moment, I got the clear view I was looking for.
January 21: Coyote and Magpie
During my first winter photo tour, I found myself once again in the Lamar Valley (actually quite close to the skunk spot). As we were driving along, I spied a coyote picking at a carcass in the snow. With it was a Black-billed Magpie, just hanging out and waiting for its turn to snag a free meal. Scavengers are a common sight around winter carcasses. Seeing ravens, eagles, and magpies waiting for a chance to dig in after the bigger mammals are done eating isn’t unusual. And magpies in particular intrigue me. They’re among the prettier birds in Yellowstone, and despite the fact they’re common, I’ve found them to be camera shy (when I finally landed a good shot of one, it showed up in my Best of 2018 list).
I thought it might be a nice opportunity to photograph these two species together, at somewhat close range. And since there was food, we might have one of those rare sessions where the magpie didn’t fly away from us immediately, as is so often the case. Fortunately, we found a parking spot in the one nearby pullout.
Ultimately, we got more than we bargained for with this encounter—check back for the Best of 2021 to see what I mean!—but the coyote and magpie interaction did not disappoint. The coyote did not want to share its prize with anyone, and it spent a lot of time chasing off the bird, even when there was no real danger of losing any of its meal. It was a lot of fun to watch, and I managed to capture several images of this playful chase.
May 22 – 23: Cinnamon Fox Kit
I was back home for a short period between my spring Yellowstone trips. While I should have been catching up on office work or relaxing during this period, I instead squeezed in a quick outing to the San Juans. Word had gotten out that there was a cinnamon fox kit this year. This was a color morph I’d first heard about years ago when a friend sent me a photo of one, but when I finally made it out there to check out the foxes, I never saw a brown one. Sure, there were silver (black), pearl (gray), and the usual red (orange) colored ones, but I had yet to see a cinnamon. So I couldn’t miss the opportunity.
Upon arrival, it was apparent I’d have to be patient. The foxes had a down year in 2020 (disease in the rabbit population and eagles emboldened by the lack of human activity put a dent in the population), so it was nice to see them bouncing back a bit. But the family I was seeking spent much of their time in the longer grasses of the prairie. It was also a bit earlier than I normally showed up, which meant the kits were smaller. Tall grass + small foxes makes for some challenging photography!
The cinnamon was a bit of a tease. It was literally the last kit to make an appearance, but eventually I started to get brief glimpses here and there. Sporadically, I began to snap some photos, and the action eventually picked up enough so that I could land some nice portraits and fulfill a longtime goal.
June 7: Raven Sunrise
We usually make it down to Hayden Valley early in the morning a couple times during my spring Yellowstone tours. The goal is to perhaps land an early wolf or bear sighting, but there’s always a good chance that, at worst, we’ll get an interesting sunrise. Fog typically lingers in the valley, creating some moody or downright eerie scenes. On this morning, however, the fog had mostly burned off. The sun was already in the clear, casting a warm glow across the northern valley. We just had to find some creatures to photograph in the nice light.
I’m pretty sure we actually stopped for Sandhill Cranes, which were lined up a couple hundred yards from the road to the west. They were a bit far for my tastes, so I wandered down the road a bit to see if there were any other opportunities. I did see two ravens perched on a berm on the east side of the road. Ravens are a favorite subject of mine, so I immediately perked up, and when I got closer I saw that there might be an opportunity to line them up with the rising sun.
Sun/wildlife silhouettes are common in a place like Africa (though I’ve never had much luck with them there), but it’s not easy to find such scenes in Yellowstone due to the rugged and undulating terrain. This was a rare sunrise silhouette opportunity for the park, and though I would have loved to place a more dynamic-looking mammal in front of that glowing orb, I took what I could get! I beckoned my clients over, and though they were slow to warm to the concept, a couple of them seemed to appreciate what I was excited about and took some of their own shots (some of which turned out better than my own). Because of the unique circumstances, this ended up being my favorite wildlife moment of the tour.
July 28: Civet & Company
On our very first afternoon of exploration in South Africa, we had a rare sighting: an African civet out before dark. It was a brief glimpse from a bridge in Kruger National Park, and nobody managed to get decent photos of what is typically an elusive nocturnal critter. Nonetheless, it was an exciting way to kick off our trip. Fast forward a week, and we were just beginning our exploration of MalaMala Game Reserve. The sun had just set, when one of our guests exclaimed, “hey Max, it’s one of… your things!”
Sure enough, another civet before dark. And this one did stick around for photos, even if there was a lot of grass in the way at times. It was my first time getting a chance to photograph this species properly (past encounters during South Africa night drives had been fleeting). And to make the sighting even more unique, this was a youngster, probably only recently booted into independence by its mother.
Believe it or not, the sighting got better. We followed the civet to a log, where it started digging, eventually pulling out some sort of meal. It mostly kept the prize hidden, so we couldn’t get clear photos, but we had enough glimpses to see that it had unearthed a leopard tortoise! Civets are known to be insectivores, but they will tackle other slightly larger prey given the chance. In this case, a young tortoise was just small enough to gnaw on for a bit. It was pretty cool to witness the predatory behavior, but then…
…a spotted hyena showed up to see what all the fuss was about. We went from an unexpected encounter with an elusive species to a triple-species interaction!
I was somewhat shocked to see that the spotted hyena ultimately left the civet (and its meal) alone. Though hyenas are effective scavengers, they will make their own kills, and a young civet seemed to be a nice target. But in this case the hyena sniffed around a bit and then went on its way. Perhaps the smell of something more appetizing was in the air.
July – September: The Other Nocturnal African Critters
The civet sightings were just a warmup to what turned out to be two Africa trips filled with cool encounters during night drives. Mammals that are hard to find always get me excited (see: skunk), and in both South Africa and Zambia I was fortunate to see a number of them, including some species for the very first time.
At our first camp in Kruger National Park, a crested porcupine was apparently denning near our rooms. I missed it when it walked past the first night, but then it came out a second time, affording me my first-ever viewing opportunity of this species and a very brief photo op. We later saw one at Tswalu, and I also had a nighttime sighting in Zambia. Another new species in Kruger was something that wasn’t even on my radar. Jenn spotted an animal moving through camp one night, and I went to investigate. Based on the size, I was expecting something along the lines of a white-tailed mongoose… but why did it have a skinny rat tail? Turns out it was a cane rat… a rodent the size of a small house cat! A mom and two babies showed up to forage just below our deck a short time later.
In the Kalahari, we enjoyed several rare mammal sightings (at least one of which will appear in the Best Of list). That included our first aardwolf, cape fox, and springhare (a bouncy rodent that looks a bit like a mini-kangaroo) sightings. Jenn also got to see her first aardvark.
My night drive luck continued in Zambia, where I lost count of all the civets and genets…
…and during one night drive we stumbled upon the elusive honey badger.
All of these sightings put my photography skills to the test, so I was pleased to get at least some basic portraits in most situations.
July 29: The Kill
It took many years, but I finally witnessed a successful leopard hunt. We actually had two kills take place before us during the South Africa trip. In both cases, the moment of impact occurred behind a bush, out of sight. But during the second encounter (at MalaMala), we were able to document everything leading up to the strike, as well as “the move” afterward.
We had been following a mother leopard and her two cubs one afternoon. She appeared hungry, occasionally pausing to watch and listen for potential meals. Eventually Mom, with the cubs sequestered far behind, honed in on some impala. She quickly crept past our vehicle, circled around a bush, and within thirty seconds: BAM! She got one. We pulled around and were able to watch as she dragged the carcass to a nearby tree. She then showed us all how remarkably strong leopards have to be to hoist their kills high up into the branches (away from where the lions and hyenas can steal the meal). Jenn documented the initial leap in the photo above.
July – September: African Owls
I’m an admitted owl fan, and whenever I go to Africa I spend a little too much time looking for them. That’s a big reason why I had owl sightings nearly every day on both my South Africa and Zambia trips. We saw five species in South Africa, highlighted by a new one for me: the Spotted Eagle-owl. We found several of those at Tswalu, including one that was perched at the lodge when we pulled in after a night drive… less than a meter from the vehicle! I zoomed out, believe it or not, to capture the wide shot above while the owl was isolated in the spotlight.
In Zambia, my only real wildlife goal was to see the Pel’s Fishing Owl. That would also be a new one for me, and my guides and I went looking for them every night… with no luck (but that is how we found the honey badger above!). I got a nice consolation prize, however, in the form of the Southern White-faced Owl above. This is a species I’d only seen a couple times previously, and still had not come away with photos that satisfied me. This one posed nicely, however. It’s a smaller species, and in my opinion one of the more beautiful owls out there, so I was delighted to finally land good photos.
August 1: Baby Meerkats
I had other more elusive goals during our Tswalu visit, but I did request time with the meerkats. Having only photographed this species briefly during previous visits to South Africa’s more arid regions, I knew I was still lacking a more diverse collection of meerkat images. And Tswalu had at least a couple families that were more comfortable around people. So we penciled in a visit for our first morning at the reserve.
Sunrise was the perfect time to photograph them. Once they awoke, the meerkats popped out one by one and stood at attention while slowly warming themselves in the morning sunlight. It was a great setting, with the red sands of the Kalahari providing a lovely backdrop. A short while into the session, we began getting glimpses of pups, an unexpected surprise. In general, I’m not as big of a fan of meerkats as I am of their herpestid cousins (other mongoose species) and mustelids, but boy, the babies sure are adorable! It turns out we were the first guests at Tswalu to see these little ones. A real treat and a great way to kick off our stay.
August 3: Lions in the Dust
We had a great lion cub encounter at MalaMala… then we had an even better one at Tswalu. The Tswalu reserve is actually split into two areas: the one with lions, and the one without. Since we were finding other interesting wildlife sightings somewhat difficult to come by, we figured we may as well see if we could find the lions. They’re far from my favorite subject, but lion cubs can put on a good show.
Fortunately, our guide Barry and tracker Siphiwe spotted tracks in the sand early on, and we were able to follow them to a water hole, where the pride was spread out. The cubs were burning off some energy already, climbing trees and chasing each other in sand. With the sun coming up behind them, it made for a spectacular backlit scene. I actually struggled to obtain sharper shots in the harsh backlighting, with a lot of images coming out softer than I would have preferred. Jenn had no such issues with her rig. I included one of her best shots above.
September 5: The Winterthorn Forest
During September’s Zambia scouting trip, I visited Lower Zambezi and South Luangwa National Parks. I had heard a bit about South Luangwa and its leopards, but knew close to nothing about the Lower Zambezi. There were two big surprises in store: the huge elephant population, and the beautiful winterthorn forest. I fell in love with the latter… it quickly became one of my favorite locations in Africa. There’s so much potential photographing in a tall, sparse forest like that. I was constantly on the lookout for elephants, leopards, wild dogs and other subjects I could compose between the scattered trunks.
Since I haven’t had a chance to sort through all the images from this trip, I may well find others that I like even more than this shot, but for now it should give you some sense of the magic of the place.
Stay tuned for more of my Year in Review content, including my Best of 2021 photos coming next week!
More Year in Review Content:
Purchase PHOTO/20-21, my annual photo yearbook. This year’s issue is 68 pages and contains dozens of images from my various adventures, including my Best of 2021 selections and a preview of the yet-to-be-published Zambia collection. $19.99 for the print magazine, $4.99 for a digital copy. Purchase a copy of PHOTO/21 here.