As I mentioned in my Not Quite Best of 2021 post, it was nice to just have a year during which I took pictures at a somewhat normal frequency. I even had a chance to travel overseas again (two Africa trips!), no small feat during COVID, but something I felt could be done safely and which felt so good. It was doubly nice to get in such a trip with Jenn and some other longtime friends, in addition to the solo scouting I did later in the year. There were a few domestic photo opportunities as well. Yellowstone, as always, played a major role (four visits!), and a few outings closer to home in the Pacific Northwest also paid off.
That’s not to say 2021 couldn’t have been even better. Foul weather and a bad team disrupted the joy of photographing the Husky Football season. More tours were cancelled, and a planned scouting excursion to Borneo had to be pushed back at least two years. Nonetheless, it was nice to leave a dismal and relatively barren 2020 in the rear view mirror. Perhaps 2022 will be the photographic year that finally feels completely normal (outside the usual heightened testing protocols, etc.). There’s a lot planned… fingers crossed that it all holds.
Big thanks to all of you who followed and supported my endeavors this year. As usual, I’ve donated a portion of my annual store sales to two charitable causes. This includes our annual contribution to the Husky Marching Band Scholarship Fund, and this year’s choice for the second cause is the James Bicknell Endowed Fund, which supports UW undergraduate travel to Asia, Europe, and North Africa.
Best Photos and Standout Moments of 2021
As always, these selections represent my favorite images or 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: 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015.
January 21: The Coyote Ate the Fox
I hinted at this moment in the Not Quite Best list. After stopping to watch and photograph a magpie harassing a coyote that was picking at a carcass, I quickly realized there was something more interesting going on than just typical scavenger activity. The coyote was eating a red fox! This was certainly an uncommon sight, and one of the more unique interspecies interactions I’ve had in the park in some time.
At the time, I wasn’t sure if the coyote was scavenging roadkill, or if actual predation had occurred between the two canid cousins. By that evening, videos had surfaced of the roadside hunt and kill, confirming the unique nature of the scene. It was the highlight of my first winter tour and stuck with me the entire year.
February 23: Multiple Martens
My second winter Yellowstone tour was great for mustelid action. We had an otter sighting, a great weasel encounter, suspected wolverine tracks… and pine martens!
The clients who were with me weren’t even sure what a marten looked like when we arrived to have lunch at a spot in the Yellowstone interior that had hosted some recent marten activity. I was actually busy trying to latch onto a cell phone signal so I could pull up a photo of one of these elusive creatures when it actually appeared behind me.
Martens aren’t seen too often, and they’re hard to photograph, in part because they can cover a wide swath of territory and are really fast. Most Yellowstone visitors probably have more marten sightings from the car (as the animal dashes across the road and into the trees) than on foot. I’d only had one good marten photo open before this day. So it was great when we could get out of our snow coach, set up, and begin shooting. But to spice things up, we ended up with not one, but two martens hanging out together in the same frame. It may well have been a courting pair (you can see the size difference)… he was definitely keeping an eye on her. Later, after studying the photos, it turned out we had three different individuals appearing in the area. Late in the session, we saw that they may have been trying to access food inside a dumpster (not an uncommon occurrence in Yellowstone, especially in winter), which sort of soured the end of the encounter for me… but seeing these two chasing each other in the trees beforehand was a lot of fun.
February 18 & 24: Winter Bison
Bison have been very good to me in recent years, especially during winter Yellowstone trips. My 2021 winter visits were particularly fruitful when it came to interesting bison photo ops, and it was hard to whittle down my favorites. Ask me in another year, and I may choose two different images, but for now I’m drawn to the graphic nature of these two shots.
The first moment occurred on my first afternoon back in the park in February. I was driving through the Lamar Valley on my way to our property, when a small herd began to descend the hillside above the road. I slowed as they picked up momentum, and ultimately chose to stop and let them pass in front of my vehicle. As each bison approached the road, they hit the really thick stuff, and snow went flying. Shooting out the window, I opted for a tighter shot, hoping some sort of interesting pattern would form with the flying snow and dark beast behind it.
The second image is from a moment in the park interior when a line of bison began their slow march across Fountain Flats. The resulting wider images, filled with billowing clouds of steam from nearby thermal features, were also quite interesting, but I leaned toward this minimalist but well-balanced scene as they just started their trek across the frozen wastes.
May 8: Wolf in a Snowstorm
During my family trip to Yellowstone in early May, I made a couple of early morning drives down to Hayden Valley. At that time of the spring it means a very early wakeup call, since the drive west, south, and back east takes a good two hours from our home base. I normally hope to arrive in time to catch sunrise in Hayden, but on this day arrived to falling snow. Which I gladly accepted… especially when we soon saw this wolf near the road.
There isn’t a single image from the encounter that really stood out for me. It was more about the experience of photographing a wolf at close range in a thick snowstorm, something I’d never enjoyed before, even during my winter trips. Truly a special moment. We almost repeated the feat less than a week later with another roadside wolf encounter in Hayden, but the snow had melted and the sun was shining, so it wasn’t quite the same.
May 23: A Mixed Fox Brood
In between spring Yellowstone trips, I ventured out to the San Juans to check on the fox kits I’ve photographed in recent years. As I detailed in the Not Quite Best post, I was excited to see my first cinnamon phase fox. While I accomplished that goal with relative ease, it remained difficult getting clear shots of the kits, since they liked to stick to areas with longer grass.
Finally, at the very end of the day the youngsters let loose. This particular family had three kits, each one a different color. Chances to photograph the siblings interacting remained elusive, but at last light this chase ensued. For a brief moment, the siblings lined up, their various hues still quite apparent as darkness descended.
May 31: Great Horned Owl and Magpies
For the first time in a few years, I was able to escape Yellowstone over Memorial Day Weekend and make my way over to eastern Idaho. In the past I’ve used the massive influx of tourists over the holiday weekend as an excuse to visit a couple of nice wildlife reserves, Market Lake Wildlife Management Area and Camas National Wildlife Refuge. They’re both good spots for birds, and though the owl action isn’t quite what it used to be when I first visited five years ago, there’s still some good activity. And, perhaps more importantly, there are hardly any people.
Market Lake is usually my favorite spot, but during my afternoon visit there the water was a bit lower than average and activity seemed to have diminished. So the next morning I drove straight to Camas, arriving at sunrise and having the whole refuge practically to myself for the first couple hours. As I slowly drove down one of the tracks, I spotted a large gray shape flying low over a ravine. It definitely looked owl-shaped, so I pulled over, grabbed my big lens, and walked down the dyke to investigate. That’s when the noise hit me.
Alarm calling is always a useful tool for finding owls, and in this case, a family of Black-billed Magpies was screaming bloody murder. Later, when I examined the photos, I could see it literally was bloody murder… a magpie was clutched in the owl’s talons!
June 1: Brown-headed Cowbird Attempted Brood Parasitism
This is a moment 99.5% of the folks out there would ignore, and even reading this description, most of you probably won’t care… but I was geeking out when I realized what had transpired in front of me during my second spring Yellowstone visit.
Sometimes when there’s a lull in the park’s general wildlife activity, I take time to go on walkabout or check out some past nest sites I’m familiar with, in case birds can provide some action. I set up at some aspen trees that have hosted a number of avian species in past years, hoping to perhaps get a good bluebird or other portrait opportunity. In the meantime, some bighorn sheep were grazing on the hillside far below me. I was visible from the road, so folks were curious about what the photographer was looking at, and most assumed I was checking out the sheep. But my lens stayed pointing at the trees. Few people stuck around for more than a couple minutes, snapping a quick photo of the herd before heading off to find something bigger, pointier and more dangerous.
I did see bluebirds, flickers, robins, juncos, swallows, and even a small wren that hung out at the aspens for a while. And then a somewhat nondescript brown bird showed up. I didn’t think much of it at first, but it didn’t match the description of most of the species I’d normally see hanging out in these trees. It was hopping from trunk to trunk, peering intently at the nest holes. And that’s when I realized what it was: a female Brown-headed Cowbird. And that led to the more important revelation…
I was witnessing attempted brood parasitism!
You see, the Brown-headed Cowbird is one of those species that likes to lay its eggs in other birds’ active nests. When the eggs hatch, the other bird (sometimes a species that’s much smaller than a growing cowbird chick) fulfills the parenting role and raises the “adopted” chick. So this cowbird was hoping to sneak in and cheat the system. Unfortunately for her, the nest in this case was occupied by the male Northern Flicker I’d seen fly in earlier. She peeked in, saw him, and promptly took off.
It was one of those fascinating but ultra subtle interactions that anyone would gloss over unless they were familiar with the behavior of this specific species. I never thought I’d witness something like this in the wild.
July 30: Moving Day
As mentioned, it was nice to be able to travel overseas with Jenn again (for the first time since our 2019 Tonga adventure). In July we returned to South Africa, a country we first visited together in 2010 and again in 2012 before I started leading my Africa tours on my own. During that first trip, we discovered MalaMala Game Reserve, still the best place to see and photograph wild leopards, in my opinion. In an earlier article I mentioned how we had an opportunity to see a mother leopard and her five-week-old cub. Over the next three days, we spent time with that family, and were fortunate to be on hand when Mom moved her cub to a new den site.
Fast forward eleven years, and we were back at MalaMala. On this particular day we were split up (our group couldn’t fit in a single vehicle, so we’d often split up to explore different areas). While my safari vehicle was stationed with another leopard family, we heard the call over the radio that a different leopard had been found, moving a “very young cub” to a new den. Jenn’s vehicle happened to be close, and they had an opportunity to set up and watch as she returned to her hiding spot, pull out a second cub—estimated to be no more than one or two weeks old!—and transport it past the MalaMala airstrip.
I was lucky that my own vehicle was allowed one pass with the new family so that I could get a few shots, but Jenn scored the most opportunities and took advantage of them. I loved the wider view of the cats she captured, which set up perfectly for a high key monochrome image.
August 3: Black Rhino Blur
Our primary goal during the August visit to Tswalu Kalahari in South Africa was the smaller, more elusive mammals the desert reserve is known for (more on that below). But they also house a population of black rhinoceros, one of the symbols of Africa’s fight against wildlife poaching. The small batch of rhinos is doing well, but only under heavy protection. They’re also quite shy, so it can be challenging to find and photograph them.
On the day we went to find them, we only had brief glimpses of two individuals. This one was already rumbling along as we were bumping down the dirt track nearby. I knew there was no chance to capture any decent sharp images, so I decided to experiment: maybe between the rhino’s movement and the jostling of our vehicle, I’d come up with an interesting blurred shot. And a couple of photos actually turned out. I preferred this result, with the signature silhouette of the endangered giant instantly recognizable amidst the wispy textures of desert grass and other vegetation. It almost looks like the rhino is running through fire… something that hopefully isn’t symbolizing its current plight to survive.
Photos of the Year, August 3: Pangolin
I already wrote a lot about our pangolin quest in another article. But here’s the bottom line:
- It was the top animal on my worldwide wish list.
- Like the rhino, the pangolin is a symbol for the worldwide poaching epidemic, being the world’s most trafficked animal.
- It took nearly four years to plan and execute this trip.
- We spent loads of money to visit the place that was the best spot in the world to see them in the wild.
- When we got there, we realized the environment had completely changed, meaning it would be much harder to find and photograph one.
- We still managed to find two, thanks to radio telemetry used by researchers.
- We had less than 20 minutes with it.
- It was mostly in long grass the whole time.
- The photos still turned out way better than I expected!
Jenn’s wider shot above was probably the best environmental shot either of us came away with (my tighter photo while standing next to her wasn’t quite as effective… those annoying grasses actually helped in this case!). And I liked my head-on portrait, side-lit by a subtle spotlight that evoked moonlight… appropriate for this nocturnal critter.
At the end of our encounter, the pangolin walked right by me. I didn’t really have a shot, so I thought I’d put the camera down, get a good look with the naked eye, and enjoy the moment. As it moved on I thought to myself, “this is the coolest animal I’ve ever seen.” Worthy of the Wildlife Encounter of the Year.
September 4: Wild Dogs Hunt Buffalo
It was hard to believe that less than a month after our South Africa adventure concluded, I was on my way back to Africa! But I needed to fill the autumn gap (open due to cancelled tours) with something. So I traveled to Zambia for the first time, in hopes that it would work as a future tour location.
The good news is that Zambia impressed. I was particularly enamored with the Lower Zambezi region. We spent much of one day exploring the beautiful winterthorn forests (mentioned in the Not Quite Best article) in search of African wild dogs. An endangered species, wild dogs have popped up on a few occasions during my past Africa visits, but this day produced perhaps my most memorable encounter.
We followed the pack for some ways until they came to rest on the edge of a dusty clearing. In the distance, we could see a large herd of Cape buffalo, and figured that once the dogs noticed them, some action might ensue. That’s exactly what happened. The chase was triggered.
We did our best to follow the action, but the buffs were smart. They stuck to the trees, making it more difficult for the dogs to separate any individuals from the rest of the herd. Dust was flying, and it was noisy. Snorting, huffing, and the clattering of hooves from the buffalo… excited yipping and squeaking from the dogs. It was quite the spectacle. This shot was taken from a bouncing vehicle as we tried to keep up with the drama, and perfectly encapsulates the tumult.
The photos from my Zambia trip have not yet been processed. Stay tuned!
September 7: Leopard Triplets
South Luangwa National Park is supposed to be a great place to photograph leopards. Some have even boasted that it’s the best place on earth to see them. I had my doubts, as an admitted lover of MalaMala and its incredible leopard opportunities. But I arrived in South Luangwa with an open mind during my Zambia scouting.
Did it stack up? Maybe not on this trip, but the park did provide an all-time sighting: my first time seeing triplet leopard cubs! In all honesty, I haven’t actually finished processing my Zambia photos yet, so there may well be a photo of this adorable trio that I like even more than this one. But it at least symbolizes some of the fun moments on display as the cubs roamed, explored, and tussled on a hillside below us (all while Mom was away hunting). We were fortunate to have these moments with the family. It was the only day I’d see them.
If you’re interested in joining me in Zambia, I will be leading a photo tour there in September, 2023. More details coming soon on the Workshops & Tours page.
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.