Though the 2022 travel slate didn’t quite go as planned, I still managed to enjoy some fun adventures that produced plenty of photo highlights. As is often the case, when I have a productive photo year, I like to pick out not only my favorite images, but also some of the “runner up” moments that didn’t make the final cut. In some cases, there may be more than just one image or encounter that fit a specific theme here, so enjoy the bonus content!
You’ll find the Not Quite Best of the Year below, but be sure to also check back over the next week or so for both the Best of 2022 from my peers, and my own favorite images of the year.
January 18: Common Raven
By now this should be a familiar photo. It just landed on the cover of my 2022 yearbook! Ravens have long been a favorite Yellowstone subject, and after bison they’re perhaps my most common black-and-white subject.
So maybe this is a typical shot, but I was pretty pleased with the way this turned out, in particular because of that view down the bird’s throat. I had to look up that odd collection of spikes inside the raven’s mouth. They’re chaonal papillae. The purpose of those ridges isn’t fully understood, but it is something that veterinarians look at in certain species of pet birds to determine the patient’s health. Regardless, it was a cool added pattern to pair with the wonderful textures found in the raven’s throat feathers and spiky hairdo.
January 19: Dipper Dive
The winter Yellowstone trip was certainly an interesting one for birds. Ravens, of course, but also less common sights such as waxwings and a leucistic Bald Eagle. This was another unique bird moment I enjoyed. While standing on a bridge checking for otters in the river below, we spied an American Dipper. It was doing what dippers do… diving under the rushing water to look for aquatic bugs. I’ve photographed dippers plenty of times before, but I never had the overhead view as they went under!
May 6: The Puma Walk
Patagonia offers plenty of opportunities to see and photograph pumas at close range. It’s truly a special experience. Even better, however, is getting a chance to conduct a “puma walk.” If the cats are on the move, we can sometimes follow, trying to stay respectful and not pressure them as they either hunt or go out on patrol.
During this year’s Patagonia tour, we had already spent time with this family the previous day. We found them again, and once Mom got going, we were on our way. Watching as the cubs ran, jumped and played—and at one point switched directions and walked right through the middle of our group—was a special moment for my clients and really set the tone for the rest of the week.
May 6: The Puma Stalk
Wow, May 6th was a busy day! Following our morning puma walk, we had some other nice encounters in Torres del Paine with birds, guanacos, and culpeos. At the end of the day we got a report of another female puma, and we rushed to find her before darkness. We arrived just in time, though initially all we saw was a guanaco closer to our vehicle.
Eventually we got oriented and found the cat, slinking slowly through the low brush on the hillside above. Puma hunts aren’t something I’ve witnessed very often (and I’ve never seen a successful kill), so it was important to get into the right position and be ready. I lined us up behind the guanaco, where we could see both predator and prey in the same frame (better to tell the story that way). The puma did a fine job on her approach, right until this moment. Whenever guanacos lift their heads, pumas freeze. When the target returns to grazing, they move. Unfortunately for this cat, the guanaco looked back up right at this point, meaning the hunter was caught in the open, against a dark patch of dirt and gravel. She was exposed, her camouflage lost, and the sharp-eyed guanaco saw her immediately. Pumas know when the game is up, and won’t waste energy if they can’t get close enough to their intended prey.
Kevin captured a view of this scene—taken right as the puma was spotted and from a slightly different angle—in the Best From My Clients collection. Be sure to check it out!
Our guides later reminded us that we had not witnessed a hunt. Merely the “Puma Stalk.” The Puma Walk and the Puma Stalk in one day is still pretty good!
July 21: The Most Amazing Sunset
We had spent a fun and action-packed day in Brazil’s southern Pantanal when it was time to return to the lodge. That day, we had photographed birds galore (a theme for a trip generally packed with avian excellence): various parakeets, hawks, vultures, and even multiple toucan species. We even landed our best giant anteater encounter to date before the sun began to set.
Just as we approached the lodge, I asked our driver to slow so we could look for the Burrowing Owl that had been hanging out in the area, but I was quickly distracted. In this tree was another bird, a Southern Crested Caracara, but that was completely inconsequential compared to the incredible sky beyond it.
The colors at dusk, perhaps enhanced by the dry and dusty atmosphere of these “wetlands,” were unlike anything I’d ever seen. Sure, I’ve seen pinks, and purples, shades of golds and orange… but not all together on one canvas like this. The color transition was incredible, and it will go down as one of the most beautiful sunset skies I’ll ever see.
July 25: Tapirs at the River
My Brazil tour continued in the Amazon rainforest, probably my favorite part of the trip due to the deep jungle environment and increased variety of potential sightings. When we arrived this year, we were in for a stretch of extremely hot days (approaching 100F consistently). This actually helped us in one regard: it meant the resident tapirs were more eager to cool off!
The South American (a.k.a., Brazilian) tapir is a species we’ve seen only on scattered occasions during past visits, with maybe one decent photo op per two week stretch. This time, we saw them nearly every day along the Cristalino River. They were hanging out along the shore—hiding in the dappled shadows beneath overhanging vines, roots, and branches—or simply submerged in the cool water. It was definitely my most productive set of encounters with this species, and within the dark environs it was fun trying to capture these shy giants peeking out into the light.
July 27: The BEST Birding Morning
This one covers a sequence of events, so I’ll start with a short preamble. First, let me make it clear: Brazil was not a birding trip. But I plan trips like this because they take us to places that can show off just about anything. Sometimes that means a mammal-heavy morning. Other times, we might have bird-centric adventures. And to be clear, we actually had a very nice river otter encounter on this morning, but it was notable because of the remarkable run of cool bird encounters we enjoyed in short succession.
We kicked off the morning heading downriver from the lodge. There was a very specific goal in mind, and it was a particular bird, but before we even reached our destination, we screeched to a halt (is that possible in a river boat?) when our guide Fred spied an Ornate Hawk-eagle perched above the river. Wow! Among the American eagles, this one was probably second only to the mighty Harpy Eagle on my wish list. It’s big, has a long crest, and sports some colorful speckled plumage. In short, it’s a big, beautiful raptor. It was still getting light, and with the eagle’s position, it was rather difficult getting decent photos (I did land a few “documentary shots”). An amazing start though.
Exiting the main river we were crossing a channel, and almost ran headlong into a Sungrebe!
This is another species somewhat prized by birders because it too is rather striking, but it’s small and quite shy. Why this one was plowing through open water (it generally likes to stick close to shore and hide among taller aquatic plants) and was oblivious to our approach is beyond me. Thankfully, we spotted each other. The Sungrebe retreated toward the distant shore, where I was able to snap a few shots of it swimming through the shadows.
At last we reached our intended destination, an island in the river that was, at the moment, the location of a lek. Not just any lek. An Amazonian Umbrellabird lek. Yet another dynamic bird species I’d never seen.
Umbrellabirds are pretty unique in the looks department, known for their wild hairdos and a large feathery wattle that dangles off the males’ necks during courtship. We saw them easily enough, but getting decent photos was a challenge, since they stuck to the tops of trees. I got one clear view.
One heck of a morning, but it wasn’t over. On the way back up the river… I spied a nemesis species!
The Razor-billed Curassow was a bird I’d seen fleetingly up until then, as they never stuck around out in the open for photos (other curassow species had been much easier to work with). This pair, however, was thirsty, and stayed long enough to drink and let me finally check this species off my photo wish list.
Our boat excursion continued with the aforementioned otters, and then a couple more uncommon bird sightings: the beautiful Spangled Cotinga and a King Vulture overhead! There was one last highlight though… another species that had teased me for many years (over a decade, in fact).
The Sunbittern is known for hiding a vibrant feather pattern in its wings. Typically this is a bird that wades in the shallows, so getting a glimpse of those wings and seeing a Sunbittern in flight had been difficult during my previous visits to Latin America. I had finally gotten off the schneid the day before with a brief flight opportunity. And here we got another one. A somewhat messy background, but probably the closest I’ve come to getting the head turn, and a wonderful glimpse at the colors present in the bird’s amazing plumage.
Not a bad morning… for a non-birding trip, at least.
July 27: Monkeys Visit the Tower
Yup, same day… definitely an epic adventure in the Amazon! In the afternoon we returned to a familiar spot. The previous morning we had enjoyed an excellent photography session at the top of one of Cristalino Lodge’s canopy towers. These are tall towers, 50 and 60m above the ground, but they’ve produced some pretty nice sightings and decent photo ops during our visits. This tower in particular had been productive. The day before, we’d had multiple toucans, woodpeckers, and parrots flying by or coming close to our position.
So when we learned that another party had cancelled their afternoon session in the tower on the 27th, we jumped at the chance to go up again. Afternoon wasn’t nearly as active as morning (the good news was that this meant I was less likely to get stung by bees again), but we were patient. As the sun hung low, we began to notice movement in the distant trees. Large bunches of leaves and branches were shaking. We couldn’t see the animals causing the movement, but knew it had to be monkeys.
Cristalino is a great place to see some rare primates. We’d already had sightings of night monkeys, the endemic white-nosed saki, and brief glimpses of the endangered white-cheeked spider monkeys. Wouldn’t it be nice, we thought, if the monkeys rustling in those distant trees headed our direction?
We still couldn’t see them, but something was happening. Soon the trees closer to us were moving. Someone down there was taking the arboreal highway right at us. Sure enough, they were quickly below our position… and then climbed up to the tops of the trees right next to the tower.
An endangered, endemic primate coming to visit us 150 feet off the ground to finish the day? Epic indeed!
September 17: Sandstorm Bear
It was great finally getting back up to Alaska to lead my COVID-delayed bear tour. Unfortunately, we had some bad timing with the weather and especially the fish (there were none!), but we made the most of it and came away with a lot of fun encounters with the wild residents of Lake Clark National Park.
This sow is perhaps the area’s most famous bear. She provided some nice photo moments for me in 2018 (including standing forlornly following a failed fishing attempt that landed on my Best Of list that year), so it was nice to see her healthy and active again this time. On this day she had strolled out to a sandy peninsula to watch for salmon. Sadly, she was out of luck again, so she gave up and headed back toward her grazing grounds. That’s when the wind picked up, and we suddenly had a mini sandstorm on the beach.
I encouraged my group to jump out and get low in order to capture some of that sand blowing around her. It worked, and with her closed eyes you can really get a sense of the harshness in that brief, loud moment when we were pelted by the wind.
May – November: New Owls
This is a little out of order chronologically, but since it spans three trips over several months, I suppose it doesn’t matter. But yes, I added five new owls to my life list this year, which I believe puts me at a whopping forty! And no, I’m not a checklist guy, but I do get a little giddy when I get to photograph new owls. Here are the new ones from this year:
The Lesser Horned Owl was once thought to be a subspecies of the Great Horned Owl, but recent research and genetic testing led to it being reclassified in the last couple years. It’s a species we’ve been looking for in Patagonia for some time (our sightings of the diminutive Austral Pygmy-owl are much more common there), but it wasn’t until this year’s tour that we finally saw one. Kudos to our tracker Marcial for finding it!
The Striped Owl wasn’t even on my radar as a possibility until just a couple weeks before my Brazil tour, when I saw that another photographer had photographed one in the southern Pantanal… where we were headed for the first time. Lo and behold, we found two together during one of our night drives, right near the road. One owl took off right away, but the other lingered, giving us this wonderful close view. It’s such a beautiful species that it ended up being my favorite new owl this year. I also remembered later that I had seen this species before, but at a falconry in Scotland sixteen years prior. I never imagined I’d get to see it in the wild!
My November Mongolia trip featured a lot of exciting moments. Somewhat unexpected was landing three new owls. This one, however, was part of the plan. The Ural Owl has been sitting at #2 on my owl wish list for some time (the Boreal remains at #1). I always thought it was quite handsome… reminiscent in some ways of our local Barred Owls, but with smaller eyes (or at least a wider-looking facial disc) it had a unique look to it. I scheduled an extra day at the beginning of the Mongolia trip to visit the forests near Ulaanbaatar in hopes of finding them. We failed during the day and as dusk descended, and even struck out during our first attempts to locate them at night. It was cold, and I was just about ready to turn in, but our guide wanted to try one more spot… and that’s where we found it!
From Ulaanbaatar, we traveled to the eastern steppe, where we found two more owls. They couldn’t be more different, at least in terms of size. The Eurasian Eagle-owl is the world’s second largest species. The Little Owl is pretty tiny (close to Burrowing Owl size). It was very cool seeing these birds surviving and thriving in a somewhat barren desert/grassland environment.
November 17: Fox Hunt
During our time in eastern Mongolia, we were primarily focused on Pallas’s cats. And we found them! But the more time we spent with those odd felines, which spend most of their time hiding in plain sight, the more pressure I felt to find some other critters too. Among them, the corsac fox. We had seen a few foxes already. There were red foxes, universally shy, but not a priority anyway. But the corsac was a new species, and thus far, we’d yet to see one at close range. Our guide insisted it would happen eventually. And he was right. This is a small canid (much smaller than the red), with a larger head that reminds one of the odd-looking Tibetan fox, but quite handsome overall in its winter coat.
What we didn’t expect was to get a 20-minute-long killing spree right in front of us.
It was a remarkable thing to watch. This fox caught at least nine Brandt’s voles in about twenty minutes, sometimes not even waiting for one to die before dropping it and going after another nearby. It was doing its best to load up its winter caches.
The routine was consistent: lay low when honing in on a target, dash forward and try to snatch the prey before it disappears into a hole. Make the kill, bite it in half, and eat the innards. Then take the two remaining vole bits and bury them for later. Repeat.
Remarkably, that afternoon we saw at least three more foxes, and they were all much more cooperative than the shy ones we’d found in the first few days. So now I’m loaded up on corsac fox pictures!
(The Mongolia collection has yet to be published. Look for it to be added to the archive in January.)
Stay tuned for more of my Year in Review content, including my Best of 2022 photos coming next week!
More Year in Review Content:
Purchase PHOTO/22, my annual photo yearbook. This year’s issue is 68 pages and contains dozens of images from my various adventures, including my Best of 2022 selections and a preview of the yet-to-be-published Mongolia collection. $19.99 for the print magazine, $4.99 for a digital copy. Purchase a copy of PHOTO/22 here.